The stories behind the stones

Melody Moberg

In the late 19th century, mischievous Lawrentians led cows up Main Hall’s rickety stairwell to our famous cupola, the structure adorning the front page of this newspaper and countless LU promotional materials. Mysterious mooing betrayed the location of the animals, which had to be rescued by disgruntled professors. As all childhood readers of Louis Sachar’s “Wayside School” series know, it is easy to lead cows upstairs, but impossible to lead them down.
This was one of many stories about Lawrence’s architectural past shared at the Main Hall forum Jan. 21. The lecture by LU Archivist/Reference Librarian and Assistant Professor Julia Stringfellow was titled “Stories Behind the Stones: A Look at the History of Past and Present Buildings of the Lawrence Campus.”
A mixed crowd of LU librarians, other faculty, alumni and students sipped sparkling water and wine a late Wednesday afternoon, eagerly leaning forward in the swivel chairs of MH 201 to hear some history about our campus.
Stringfellow covered 11 of the 70 buildings and houses composing our campus since its foundation in 1847. Some are no longer part of the campus, while others remain daily fixtures.
These buildings included the Academy, Main Hall, Ormsby Hall, the Underwood Observatory, the first Alexander Gymnasium, Peabody Hall, Brokaw Hall, the Memorial Chapel, the Hamar Union, the second Alexander Gymnasium and our current Memorial Union.
The first building on our campus was not Main Hall, but the Academy – a structure located at the site of the current YMCA. It was completed in October of 1849 and housed the entire Lawrence campus, including a chapel and dorm rooms with stoves. The year of 1849-1850, the Academy was a coed community of 35 students and five faculty members. Lawrence began as a prep school, slowly introducing college-level courses.
In 1853, Main Hall was built to accommodate growth, and the Academy was used as female housing. Unfortunately, in 1857, the Lawrence community was once more reduced to one building. After a mandatory chapel service in Main Hall, students discovered the Academy had burned down, joking that if the service had lasted one hour instead of two the building could have been saved.
From 1942 to 1945, Brokaw Hall was a naval officer training headquarters, teaching land-bound Wisconsinites how to swim. Later, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech in the Memorial Union, and our Memorial Chapel was graced by Frank Lloyd Wright, President Nixon, Yo-Yo Ma and Louis Armstrong.
One particularly amusing exchange involved the Underwood Observatory, a structure which no longer exists on campus. Professor of Astronomy and Mathematics L. Wesley Underwood raised $5,000 in two months to build the observatory in 1891. However, he suddenly resigned his position and left town. Several months later, the minutes of a faculty meeting recorded a motion to have “Underwood” chiseled off of the building.
“I cannot find evidence for exactly what happened,” Stringfellow said, “but I imagine it was quite scandalous!”
She was cut off by Professor Chaney. “I heard he ran off with a colleague’s wife!” he called out from the audience. He paused. “I wasn’t there … but that’s what I was told!”
After the lecture, Stringfellow took questions from the audience. She revealed that the two most haunted places on the Lawrence campus are Cloak Theatre and Stansbury Theatre.
Also, in 1898, Professor Hiram A. Jones died in what is now the Latin Library, and – yes – Stringfellow discovered Samuel Plantz’s death mask in an unmarked box in the Seeley G. Mudd Library’s archives.
It was fascinating to see how many stories really do dwell “behind the stones” of our campus buildings. It was also delightful to experience Stringfellow’s enthusiasm as she told these stories and shared her own stories of interviews and archival research that led to their uncovering.
Reference librarians Julie Fricke and Gretchen Revie will present the next Main Hall Forum, titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Feb. 4.