Political Science - Administration - Building History

The document provides the building history of North Hall and information on North Hall tenant John Muir.

North Hall

North Hall was the first building constructed specifically for the use of the university. It has been designates a National Landmark and a contributing building in the Bascom Hill Historic District.

The building opened September 17, 1851, at a construction cost of $19,000. The entire university operated out of this building for the next four years (until the construction of South Hall).

The original room configuration included 24 living suites on the first three floors. Each suite included two bedrooms and a study room. The top floor included study and lecture rooms, as well as a chapel.

Initially the building had no running water and students had to use an outdoor privy. In the winter North Hall was heated by a central furnace located in the basement. This arrangement was modified in 1865, due to budget constraints, when individual stoves were added to each room. Students were responsible for gathering their own firewood.

North Hall, sometimes called the North Dormitory in the early years, housed students for over three decades. In 1884, following the fire that destroyed the first Science Hall, the entire building was converted to exclusive instructional uses.

North Hall: A Brief Chronology

  • 1851 Opens on September 17. First building of the University, also called North Dormitory or “The College”. Houses the entire University until South Hall opens in 1855.
    Contractor: Joseph Livesey; Cost: $19,000
    University in 1851: 3 professors: John Lathrop, Chancellor, John Sterling, and O. M. Conover. One janitor, John Conklin. Around 30 students. The students and Conklin were housed on the first three floors, which contained 24 suites, each with a study and two bedrooms. Fourth floor contained lecture rooms, library, cabinet (museum), and chapel.
  • 1853 John Sterling establishes the first meteorological station in Madison on the roof of North Hall. Observations are discontinued during the Civil War, reestablished by W. W. Daniels from 1869-1878, then they moved to the city. In 1883 Washburn Observatory takes over meteorological observations.
  • 1855 South Hall opens. It houses students, and many of the faculty move there. The library and cabinet move there.
  • 1860-1863 John Muir lives in North Hall while a student at UW (see Muir information below).
  • 1865 Due to financial problems the University discontinues heating the building with hot air furnaces in the basement. Stoves are installed in the rooms and students have to furnish their own wood.
  • 1879 Rooms are repaired and repainted. Fees go from $3 to $5 per term.
  • 1884 Fire destroys the first Science Hall. North Hall is converted to offices and classrooms and is no longer used as a dormitory.
  • 1888 First year university catalogs say where departments are housed. North Hall includes Scandinavian Studies, German, and Military Science and Tactics.
  • 1889 Pharmacy moves in. Scandinavian Studies moves to Bascom. Military Science moves to Library Hall (Music Hall).
  • 1893 Hebrew and Hellenistic Greek moves in.
  • 1904 U. S. Weather Bureau station re-established. Pharmacy moves to the Chemical Laboratory (old Chemical Engineering, now Helen C. White). Hebrew and Hellenistic Greek moves to South Hall.
  • Between 1904-06 new heating and ventilation is installed and offices and classrooms are renovated.
  • 1905 Business (later Commerce), including Political Economy, moves in from South Hall.
  • 1915 German moves to South Hall.
  • 1918 Commerce moves to the new Physics-Economics Building (Sterling Hall). In the spring of 1918 part of the building is used as a dorm by Section B of the Student Army Training Corps.
  • 1919 Mathematics moves into North Hall from Bascom Hall. Building included offices, library, and lecture halls for the department.
  • 1937 Equipment is installed in the Weather Bureau space to allow Eric Miller (in charge of the Weather Bureau station from 1908-1944) to broadcast weather reports directly from North Hall.
  • 1963 Political Science moves into the building from South Hall. Mathematics moves to the new Van Vleck Hall.
  • 1965 December 12, National Historic Landmark status granted. A ceremony and installation of the plaque is held on May 13, 1966.
  • 1966 October 15, listed in National Register of Historic Places.
  • 1973/4 Air conditioning installed.
  • 1989 January 1, listed in the State (Wisconsin) Register of Historic Places.

John Muir

Perhaps the most famous student to have lived in North Hall was the naturalist, inventor and wilderness advocate John Muir.

He shared the dormitory suite in the northeast corner of the first floor. Muir’s former room is currently a graduate computer lab (room 122).

Muir attended the university between February 1861 and June 1863, for a total of six terms. He skipped one term during the winter of 1862 to teach in a one-room school house in Oregon Wisconsin, in order to earn money to continue his studies.

He subsisted on a meager diet, for about 50 cents a week. Sometimes he would cook a simple meal of a potato on the coals of the wood furnace in the basement. Some have described Muir’s room as a kind of museum: along the walls he built shelves to hold his many natural history collections, chemistry experiments, and botanical specimens.

Muir’s ingenious hand carved inventions, including a mechanical study table and a bed he called, “an early rising machine” were popular attractions for fellow students as well as visiting dignitaries and faculty.

The study table would automatically select a book from a shelf and open it for efficient study. The table was rigged to a hand-built clock that would retrieve the book after 15 minutes of rigorous study!

In his autobiography, “My Boyhood and Youth” Muir describes his first lesson in botany that occurred just outside his bedroom window in the late spring of 1861. A fellow student shared with him the intricacies of plant taxonomy, which fascinated Muir for the remainder of his life.

Following the spring term of 1863 Muir left Madison, with vague plans to return in the fall or perhaps move to the University of Michigan to attend medical school. Neither of those plans worked out. Instead he famously writes in his autobiography that he left “the Wisconsin University for the University of the Wilderness.”

Other places on campus and Madison that have John Muir connections:

  • View the bronze bust of Muir on display at Birge Hall.
  • Stroll over to Muir Knoll (just to the north of North Hall), and walk through John Muir Park.
  • Visit Picnic Point, and the Lake Mendota shoreline, where Muir would go on his early “botanizing” trips.
  • Stop by the lobby of the Wisconsin Historical Society building on Library mall to see Muir’s original study table.
Information prepared by Daniel Einstein, UW-Madison Historic and Cultural Resources Manager, and David Null, UW-Madison Archives, in August 2013.



Keywords:political science polisci poli sci building history john muir Muir north hall dorm first   Doc ID:29366
Owner:Beth T.Group:Department of Political Science
Created:2013-04-08 15:23 CDTUpdated:2017-05-25 11:16 CDT
Sites:Department of Political Science
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