Morrill victory for tradition

Sara Purvis

Editor’s note: The following story is the second in a series of articles that highlight some of Iowa State’s most interesting buildings and structures.

One of the oldest buildings on campus was created with the thought that every university must have a library and a museum in order to be the best institution for its students.

Morrill Hall, located north of Beardshear Hall and east of the Hub, will soon be empty, after serving the university for more than 100 years.

Important both architecturally and historically, Morrill Hall, which is quickly deteriorating, has an uncertain fate on the ISU campus.

In January of 1870, the minutes of the Board, which governed ISU, read, “Next to the men that teach its students and to the men that control its affairs, the library and museum are the most important means of building up a great institution.”

Twenty years later, the Board accepted the preliminary sketches for a building that would serve the purpose of library and museum from the Cedar Falls architectural firm of Josselyn and Taylor.

A bid of about $29,000 from General O.J. King of Omaha was accepted and groundbreaking for Morrill Hall was underway.

Wesley Shank, a professor of historical architecture, said he believes the building is a unique structure with an important past.

“I think that it is interesting in the way it combined university requirements. As the sign on front reads it was used for a library, chapel and museum, in addition to more classrooms and the music department. It was quite clever,” he said.

Shank said Morrill Hall played an important role in the campus design as well.

“Morrill Hall is part of the ring of buildings that defines the edges of central campus, that just wouldn’t be the same without all of those buildings around the side,” Shank said.

The building not only defines central campus, it also defines Iowa State’s history.

The building was named after Justin Morrill, the Vermont congressman who was the author of the 1862 Land Grant College Act. The building was dedicated after him in June of 1891.

The act, which was first adopted by Iowa, made it possible for the state of Iowa to open Iowa Agricultural College and Farm, now Iowa State University, in 1869.

Morrill Hall has been described as a monument to ISU’s efforts in land-grant education

“It really stands for the history of Iowa State, Iowa was the first state to accept the land grant, and the firm that designed the building was one of the leading firms of the time. It was really important work for that firm,” Shank said.

Architecturally, Morrill Hall is known for its turrets, typical of the Romanesque style, that were commonly found in medieval stone fortresses. Two greek houses near campus, Kappa Sigma and Sigma Kappa, are other examples of this type of architecture.

Morrill Hall was placed on the National Registry of Historical Places in July of 1996, after being nominated, and then approved, by both state and national committees.

However, the future for this historical building may not be so bright.

In a few years, the building that was one of the finest buildings at Iowa State, may only be a memory for those students who were lucky enough to see it. The university is in the process of vacating the historical building.

Late this summer Extension Communications, the only department housed in the building, will be moved to a new building at Pammel Court. Morrill Hall then will be closed until a decision regarding the future of the building is made.

Warren Madden, vice president of business and finance, said the building will not deteriorate beyond repair in its closed-down state.

“The building will continue to age, but to have it closed down for a number of years doesn’t pose an immediate risk to the building,” Madden said.

The building is in desperate need of renovations to repair the exterior and interior of the building and to bring the building up to fire codes.

The estimated costs of the required renovations is $6.5 million, funds that the university doesn’t have, Madden said.

Roger Brown, superintendent of Morrill Hall, said the biggest expense of repairing the building is the replacement of the outside bricks which were ruined by sandblasting a few years ago.

Private funding is the only hope for Morrill Hall now. The last capital campaign, Madden said, was unsuccessful in finding funding for the building. This year’s campaign doesn’t have Morrill Hall as a focus.

Madden said the state Board of Regents has slated the building for renovation in the fiscal year 2000, meaning it probably won’t be used again until the year 2001, if it lasts that long.

It is difficult to find private funding for a building that is already named for someone, Madden said.

“It just isn’t something that most donors are interested in,” he said. “There are no immediate plans to tear down or renovate, the funding just isn’t there. We’ll have to wait and see what happens.”