Universal Halls

Most state universities still have a Morrill Hall, built after an 1862 act of Congress.

Slated for demolition, Iowa State University's Morrill Hall will be restored, mostly with alumni money.

Credit: Iowa State University

Central Iowa's most beloved camel met its final demise on the third floor of Iowa State University's oldest building. The beast accompanied a traveling circus through Ames in the 1870s and expired in the street during a parade. After an enterprising student taxidermist relieved the ringmaster of the dead dromedary, its stuffed form was installed in Morrill Hall beside a monkey, alligator, and aardvark in the building's museum. According to university lore, a leaky pipe soaked the display, and the camel's sodden carcass exploded.

Generations of students' exploits and triumphs echo through Iowa State's Morrill Hall. On Halloween mornings, skewered pumpkins often appeared atop the tallest turret. Music classes dodged stubborn infestations of bats and bees. George Washington Carver, Iowa State's first black graduate, sang and debated classmates in the building's auditorium.

More than 50 public campuses across the country have Morrill Halls, which commemorate the federal government's role in providing practical education for the working class. Most have colorful histories to rival Iowa State's and are still in use.

But in 1997, Iowa State University closed its 114-year-old Morrill Hall and slated it for demolition after it was declared unsafe. "It had gotten into such bad shape," says Tanya Zanish-Belcher, head of the university's special archives collection. "I don't think there had ever been a restoration effort."

In 2001, an opinion survey in the alumni newsletter mentioned the impending demolition, and an outcry ensued. President Gregory Geoffrey said the building available for renovation if alumni could raise the money. The university designed a Web site to collect funds and keep alumni abreast of renovation plans. Many, like 1956 graduate Mary Molison Finley, have posted their fondest memories of Morrill Hall: "The building was drafty in the winter and uncomfortably hot in fall and spring. But we all loved it-not only for its convenient location, but for the feeling of being wrapped up in a piece of history."

Morrill Hall's restoration will cost $9 million, and a grant from the state will provide only 10 percent of the money. The Iowa State University Foundation has collected $7.3 million from more than 1,500 donors, including nearly 500 current students, 56 of whom have donated more than $250. "Even if they haven't been in the building, they pass by it every day," says Sarah Buck, a foundation representative. "They take great joy in being able to preserve something of such character and history."

Colleges are relying on private donors "unfortunately more and more" to save their oldest buildings from the wrecking ball, says Kerry Dixon-Fox, the project's manager from the university's facilities, planning and management division. "With the state of the economy, especially here in Iowa, projects we're just now getting funding for have been in planning for up to seven years," she says.

UMD's Morrill Hall

Credit: John Consoli, University of Maryland

Another renovation of a Morrill Hall began last year at the University of Maryland. Now used as offices, its 1898 Morrill Hall formerly housed the medical school, and the ghosts of cadavers once stored in the basement are rumored to wander the halls. The University of Nevada's Morrill Hall is now a natural-history museum.

Civil War-era Vermont Sen. Justin Smith Morrill envisioned a national network of public universities to "promote liberal and practical education of the industrial classes." Most schools of the day were expensive, private, and emphasized erudite but impractical subjects like Latin and philosophy. The eight institutions of the Ivy League, concentrated in the Northeast, left few options for the sons of Midwestern farmers.

The 1862 Morrill Act granted each Union state 30,000 acres for each delegate it sent to Congress. Iowa, the first state to benefit, received 210,000 acres in 1864. An 1890 addendum extended the grant to former Confederate states. The resulting land-grant colleges kept tuition low and focused on engineering, agriculture, and military strategy. "States really kept very little [land]," says university spokesman John Anderson. "They had to sell the land to build buildings and start the place up." 

Nebraska's Morrill Hall was renovated as a museum.

Credit: University of Nebraska

Over the years, Iowa State University's turreted brick Morrill Hall housed the library, departments of music, zoology and geology, a chapel, and a barber shop. When the project is completed in 2007, Morrill Hall will house the Christian Petersen Art Museum, named for a sculptor alumnus, the Center for Teaching Excellence, and the Center for Visual Learning in Textiles and Clothing.

Iowa's Morrill Hall was still attracting students before it closed, despite only housing the university's photographic services department. "It has 'library' carved above the main door from back when it was the campus library," Zanish-Belcher says. "Now our modern library is a huge, centrally located building, but we'd have students wandering into Morrill Hall at the end of the semester looking for the library."  

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