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A Brief History of North Hall--The First Building Constructed on the University of Wisconsin Campus

It's old, drafty and probably not the first building you notice on a jaunt through the UW-Madison campus. But North Hall, all 150 years of it, is history. The first building on the University of Wisconsin campus, North Hall opened on Sept. 17, 1851. For its first four years North Hall was the entire UW campus, and it is still in service today. "It was the whole university," says Art Hove, UW special assistant emeritus and author of The University of Wisconsin: A Pictorial History.Until Bascom Hall was built, and shifted the emphasis, it was the cornerstone of the university. Its significance is enormous. On the day of North Hall's anniversary, Monday, Sept. 17 2001, that significance was celebrated by the UW's Political Science department, North Hall's current tenant. The celebration was attended by about 75 faculty, staff and graduate students. There was a very large birthday cake with the inscription, "Happy 150th Birthday, North Hall," on it, says Prof. Mark Beissinger, chairman of the department. After a short speech noting some of the similarities between 150 years ago and today, "Just like today, back then the heating in the building was unreliable and the air-conditioning didn't work. We then all joined in singing 'Happy Birthday' to our collective home." If the history and a common heritage can provide strength and unity in times of trouble, it's no surprise that the anniversary of the oldest building on campus was celebrated. Besides serious academia, North Hall's early-decades saw a series of wild adventures filled with pranks, ghosts, gunfire and the first nature studies of a young student named John Muir. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places. It may be revered now, but when it was new, "It was cold and drafty and full of people," says Jim Feldman, author of The Buildings of the University of Wisconsin. Civilization and 14-year old Madison was a mile away, and to get to campus you had to walk through thick woods unmarred by trails. "It does seem sort of incredible when you go there now," says Feldman. "There were very few amenities of any kind." "And there still are very few amenities," laughs Beissinger. There is no elevator to the fourth floor, for example. In the beginning, North Hall, atop Bascom Hill, included dormitory, museum, classrooms, mess hall and library, all within four floors. The next building, South Hall, was completed in 1855, and Bascom Hall in 1860. The university itself first received students Feb. 5, 1849, but the first classes were held in borrowed quarters in town, near Wisconsin Avenue, at the Madison Female Academy, until North Hall could be completed. State Street then ended at Broom Street.

As construction for North Hall began, teenager Daniel K. Tenney hiked over and announced to workmen his intention to attend the university as soon as the building was finished. "Young man," said one of the laborers, "if you intend studying here, now is your chance. You may lay the cornerstone." And so he did. Tenney did go to school at the UW, but after a time "the faculty invited him to adopt some other institution as his alma mater," according to a 1906 issue of Wisconsin Alumni Magazine. He afterward worked as a printer for the Wisconsin State Journal and went on to become a wealthy leading citizen. About 30 students signed up for the first semester in North Hall. The faculty, all three of them, lived in the building, along with the students and janitor. To signal each day's first class at 6 a.m., the instructors rang a large bell on the second floor. In the first of many mysteries surrounding North Hall, the bell's clapper somehow disappeared until a later starting time was set. Curfew was 9 p.m., and a large basket and rope were sometimes secretly flung outside, for students sneaking in late. In front of North Hall were a hitching post and a pump. The water from it was of dubious quality, and one early alumnus recalled in 1906, "It's a wonder it didn't kill us all. Freshman came to have an intimate knowledge of the pump, since through the 1860's they were "baptized" beneath it by upper-classmen.

With the Civil War came deep cuts in state aid to the university. In 1864, every senior but one had joined the army, and so commencement was not held. A year later funds dwindled to the point where North Hall's wood-fired furnaces were idled. For heat, students had to provide the wood. Some took axes to the surrounding forest. Others simply stole, until several Madisonians took action by filling logs in their woodpiles with gunpowder. One North Hall stove actually exploded, and stealing stopped. As for restrooms, outhouses served that function, though they were often tipped over or burned.

Food was a problem for the first UW students. By the 1860's, the faculty themselves provided board in a mess room within North Hall, for $3 a week. Some students, such as the legendary naturalist, Muir, lived on mush and roasted potatoes, which they cooked themselves. One survivor of those years recalled that others depended on "the involuntary contributions of the surrounding inhabitants, many of whom had cows, pigs or poultry who took turns contributing to the rising generation." Still other students, and at least one faculty member, kept their own livestock right outside North Hall; in 1861 the UW Board of Regents forbade the pasturing of animals on campus.

Still others hunted. "Madison in the 1850's was a paradise for game," recalled Richard W. Hubbell in 1906. He lived in North Hall before graduating in 1858. "One day a nice flock of quail came near the bedroom window in study hours, and the temptation being too great, I fired out the window at them. Chancellor Hiram Lathrop was not pleased. But on another occasion when Hubbell aimed at a partridge and instead hit a chicken, Lathrop was more forgiving.

Said the Chancellor, "If this tame hen was so unwise as to try and imitate the peculiar attributes of the wild bird, I think" (and here is where he cleared his throat) "it justly deserves its fate. You may take it back to the kitchen."

Even Muir hunted around North Hall as a student. "In those days before endangered species, Muir wrote about shooting an eagle with a six-foot wingspan," says Feldman.

Muir came to the UW in the fall of 1860, and legend holds that his room was in the northeast corner of the first floor. His room's location is officially uncertain, but it is true that he filled it with specimens, laboratory equipment and strange wooden clocks, which he built himself.

If Muir had not gone on to become America's earliest and foremost naturalist, and father of our national parks system, he perhaps would have become an inventor. The strangest of his North Hall clocks was also a desk and bookshelf. Its elaborate mechanisms would open books for Muir to study, a half hour at a time, one after the other. It also lighted his lamp. The strange desk-clock has been preserved at the State Historical Society, and you can see it displayed at its headquarters, at 816 State St.

Despite his clocks, Muir had trouble waking each morning, so he and the janitor came to an arrangement: at night Muir would tie a string to his big toe and throw the other end out the window. Each morning the janitor would yank it.

Muir stayed at the UW for four years, but left without receiving a degree.

"I was far from satisfied with what I learned, and should have stayed longer," recalled Muir in The Story of My Boyhood and Youth. Anyhow, I wandered away on a glorious botanical and geological excursion, which has lasted nearly 50 years and is not yet completed.

Despite all the pranks, the faculty did try to keep students in line, and not only with required daily prayers. Chancellor Lathrop created the 'Excuse Box,' which hung in North Hall and, later, Bascom Hall. Into it were placed students' excuses for missed lectures, to avoid demerits. Students began each semester with a credit of 100 points for scholarship and deportment. Missing prayers cost you two points, and a student lost five points for merely entering any Madison saloon.

In 1880 a student awoke and left his second floor room to see an apparition in white, a ghost! It floated apparently in mid-air in the corridor. The student rushed back to awake his roommate, but the ghost had left. They went back to bed. But the ghost reappeared in their room the same night. According to the student newspaper, The Daily Cardinal, the specter 'floated around the room a moment or so and then departed.'

Word quickly spread across the entire campus (by then the UW comprised a handful of buildings besides North Hall) and the phantom satisfied the curious by reappearing several nights. Sometimes it materialized in a corridor, 'skipping through the halls and vanishing,' said The Cardinal. Other times it would enter a room, eerily linger, and then depart. Often it was satisfied with torturing sleepers by taking coal from scuttles and throwing it down stairways.

The Wisconsin State Journal even printed an account by student Alvin Hitchcock, who described the ghost's 'garments of unearthly whiteness.'

A group of terrified students came to UW President John Bascom for help. And Bascom took action in a manner which some might say has become a model: he formed a committee of study. But student Whitney Trousdale stepped forward and claimed responsibility. He had simply covered himself with a bed sheet and romped through the hallways. Trousdale later became a Methodist minister.

North Hall continued to serve at least partly as a dorm until 1884. As the campus grew, North Hall hosted departments including German, Scandinavian, mathematics and the Madison Weather Bureau. Today, as home to the Department of Political Science, at least one real ghost of sorts has turned up.

"We just renovated a room, and in doing so we had to take down the blackboards," says Beissinger. "And behind it was another blackboard, and on it was an old German lesson."

Students and faculty passing by North Hall each day may not realize the building's history, but, says Hove, "one thing I think about is the elegance of its architecture. On the one hand, it looks like a simple rectangular box. But on the other hand, the proportions are just perfect."

It has such a dignity to it. It never ages.

--Jay Rath

Published in the Fall, 2001 Newsletter: Wisconsin Political Science


Important Dates in North Hall History