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“The Best That Could Then Be Had”

June 6, 1872


“The whole building is a text book,” wrote reporters from the Fort Scott Daily Monitor after touring the nearly complete structure on KU’s campus that would become known as University Hall and, later, Fraser Hall. They expressed amazement at seeing the most modern of nineteenth-century technologies being installed at a university only six years old, in a state less than a dozen. “The student who becomes familiar with this building,” they added, “has already gained a thorough knowledge of the principles and applications of ventilation, of the practical and scientific uses of steam and electricity, and of many other facts in mechanics, optics and acoustics…”

No one today, of course, would construct a building heated by steam and lit by gas. And running water and electrically powered clocks in every room, certainly, would not astonish anybody. Yet in the 1870s, these amenities were at the cutting-edge of American technical innovation and a source of immense pride to all those associated with the University of Kansas.

When John Fraser, KU’s second chancellor, took office in 1868, he found the school’s 122 students crammed into a single, 11-room building with no central heating, although each room did have its own stove. This building (later called Old North, but unnamed at the time) could clearly not serve the needs of a growing university for much longer. A Scotsman by birth, Fraser was a former mathematics professor, brigadier-general in the Union Army, and president of the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania at Bellefonte. He once said that, “The proper education of youth is the highest priority and duty and interest of an organized, intelligent Christian community” and that education should prepare students for the “proper performance of the duties of public and private life.”

Fraser realized that private colleges could provide a quality education to only a limited number of people, most of whom were the sons and daughters of privilege. Thus, it was each state’s responsibility to make higher education available to as many of its citizens as possible and, naturally, to appropriate sufficient funds to operate and maintain its institutions. The Lawrence Daily Kansas Tribune agreed, noting a few years later that, “A thorough University education is the only means by which the children of poor farmers can be put on an equality with those of the rich [in] the east.”

And when Fraser arrived in Lawrence on June 12, 1868, “it was immediately obvious to him,” wrote KU historian Clifford Griffin, “that the University needed more of everything – more money, more faculty, more buildings and equipment, more college students, more books for the library. The greatest need,” however, “was a new and larger building, for the swelling student body put space at a premium.”

Fraser’s original inclination was to look to Topeka and ask the state legislature to appropriate the funds necessary to construct new buildings for the University. The Kansas Board of Regents quickly disabused the new chancellor of this notion, informing him that the legislature had rebuffed them earlier in the year when they had made the same request. So, upon Fraser’s suggestion, the Regents turned to the people of Lawrence, asking them to float $100,000 worth of bonds, an amount thought sufficient to erect three new buildings. Lawrence responded generously to the Regents’ request, voting on February 3, 1870, to approve a 20-year, seven percent bond measure – a substantial commitment from a town of less than 8,000 inhabitants.

A month later, Chancellor Fraser addressed the Board’s Executive Committee, saying that, “I would impress upon my colleagues the necessity and the duty of taking great care that the buildings shall not only be neat, substantial and commodious but shall also embrace in their structure and equipment the most approved known conveniences required for the various purposes of the University.”

To help achieve this aim, Fraser personally, and at his own expense, embarked upon an East Coast tour of American colleges and universities to “visit institutions of learning [and] obtain the most improved plans for university buildings.” He came back, according to Kansas Alumni magazine, “armed with ideas about the size of buildings, the arrangement of classrooms and laboratories, and systems for heating and ventilation.” By May 1870, though, it became clear that $100,000 would only fund the cost of one new building. Fraser and the Regents, therefore, decided to build “one magnificent, all-purpose structure” which began construction in July of that year.

Work proceeded quickly on the University’s “New Building,” as it was first called, and by March 1872, newspaper reporters and other interested observers were descending upon Lawrence to get a look at KU’s extraordinary structure. The Lawrence Daily Kansas Tribune predicted on March 31 that, upon completion, “the University of Kansas will possess important conveniences which are not found combined in any other institution in the country at the present day. We may venture to say that … the University of Kansas, in the education ground it covers, will be superior to any other institution in the land.”

The Fort Scott Daily Monitor, on June 6, 1872, exclaimed that, “There is no structure on the American continent, erected for educational purposes, equal to this in size or surpassing it in adaptness for the purposes of higher education.” Describing their visit to the New Building as one “which we shall never forget,” the reporters added the following: “It may be said with simple truth that Harvard College has existed more than two hundred and thirty years without having a building equal to this in size or usefulness for the purposes of education.”

So what was so impressive and useful about the New Building? The entire structure, noted the Daily Monitor, “will be heated with steam and lighted with gas, and every room will be supplied with water.” And although electric lights did not appear at KU until 1888, the building featured electrically powered clocks in each room. In addition, mechanically inclined students would also be able to work with steam-driven engines, lathes and other machinery. Being 300 feet long, 100 feet wide, and rising four stories, it was spacious enough to house the entire University: departmental and administrative offices, laboratories, classrooms, the library, a student reading room, even a large, second-floor auditorium.

Reporters from the Lawrence Daily Kansas Tribune were particularly impressed by some of the built-in meteorological instruments, including a state-of-the-art barometer and an anemometer, a device that measures wind direction and velocity. Regarding the latter instrument, they wrote that, “We were surprised to learn in connection with these wonderful apparatus that there were only two in existence. One being in Washington and the other in our University.” And none left without remarking on the spectacular view one could enjoy from atop the New Building.

On December 2, 1872, the day arrived to formally open the New Building. Chancellor Fraser tried to express his gratitude to the people of Lawrence for giving their children “the best that could then be had.” Their $100,000 bond had been essential to the building’s construction, although earlier that year, the state legislature had come around and appropriated $50,000 to help complete the project.

“We have a building nearly completed that has not its peer in the whole land,” declared Fraser at the ceremony. “This building was not erected by the princely aid of a nobleman or millionaire, but it is the work of the people, the toiling thousands of our blood-bought Kansas. We accept it as a token of their liberality. The people have reason to rejoice with the faculty at what has been accomplished.”

The New Building became officially known as University Hall in 1879, just in time for its most famous visitors yet, President Rutherford B. Hayes, First Lady Lucy Hayes, and General William Tecumseh Sherman. “Before entering the main hall, [they] ascended the observatory and took a view from the summit,” reported the September 28, 1879, edition of the Lawrence Daily Tribune. “Mrs. Hayes, at first, thought she would not go up, but Gen. Sherman said to her, you will regret it all your life if you do not. She acknowledged the correctness of the remark when she took in the landscape. The party were delighted, as everybody is, with the noble view.” (Some reports, however, suggest that the President was winded by the exertion, and consequently delivered a much shorter address to the student body than had been originally anticipated.)

To honor the building’s champion, KU changed the name of University Hall to Fraser Hall in 1897, even though the Chancellor had resigned in 1874 after repeated conflicts with the faculty. Yet just as Fraser himself had been on shaky ground with the faculty, so too was his namesake edifice. As early as the 1880s, architects discovered structural flaws in Fraser Hall that, over the next seven decades, required periodic maintenance and some major foundational repairs. Ultimately, these stopgap measures were not enough. In 1962, KU Chancellor W. Clarke Wescoe was forced to report that Fraser Hall “has outlived its usefulness…. It is being kept usable only at unusual expense … [and] is an increasingly unsatisfactory educational facility for both students and faculty.”

Immediately there arose a great hue and cry from many alumni to “Save Old Fraser,” yet, as the Kansas Alumni magazine recalled in November 1965, the biggest problem facing the University was the “matter of keeping Fraser standing long enough to evacuate the people, furniture, equipment, and salvageable artifacts it contained.” In the end, nostalgia and sentimentalism could not stop the wrecking ball, which finally razed “Old” Fraser Hall in August 1965. “New” Fraser Hall stands today approximately in its predecessor’s location.

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: One of the best resources for information on “Old” Fraser Hall is Carol Shankel and Barbara Watkins, Old Fraser, (Lawrence, Kan.: Kansas University Endowment Association, 1984). See also a wealth of documentation in the Old Fraser Hall Papers, University Archives, 4th Floor, Spencer Research Library. For brief accounts, see Robert Taft, The Years on Mount Oread, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1955) pp. 10-13; and Clifford Griffin, The University of Kansas: A History, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1974), pp. 39-48. Also, Kansas Alumni (November 1965), pp. 10-12, 30.]