CSU Archives and Special Collections

CSU Buildings and Grounds History

A history of CSU's building and grounds from 1870 to the present.

Old Main / Main Building / Administration Building / College Hall / College Building, 1879 - 1970

Two-storied brick building on a stone basement/foundation with a distinctive tower over the main entrance. Two people are standing on the front steps.Old Main, 1880-1889

From CSU's Sense of Place:  A Campus History of Colorado's Land-Grant University, by James E. Hansen, Gordon A. Hazard, and Linda M. Meyer.  Fort Collins, CO:  Colorado State University, 2018.

Architects - George E. King of Boulder, Professor James W. Lawrence, Montezuma W. Fuller, Willis Adams Marean of Denver

Builders - W. G. Bentley of Greeley, Henry C. Baker of Boulder, Adams and Ellis of Pueblo

Built on the site of a large prairie dog village, the Administration or Main Building (Old Main) was ready for the start of school the fall of 1879.  In 1889 the first addition to the “College Hall” was opened and a second addition was opened in 1903.

At the January 1878 State Board of Agriculture meeting, Board President William Frisbee Watrous and Board Secretary Harris Stratton were elected as a committee of two members to carry out the planning and arrangements for the construction of the new “College Building”.  In March 1878, building designs were considered along with input requested from the President of Kansas State Agricultural College, Dr. John H. Anderson.  The plans that were accepted for the 40’ x 60’building came from George E. King of Boulder.  On June 20, 1878 ground was broken without any ceremony.  Work began to build the “College Hall” by low bidder W. G. Bentley of Greeley.

The cornerstone for “Old Main” was set on July 27, 1878.  It was a rainy day in Fort Collins.  Despite the gloomy weather, a large crowd journeyed south of town to the building site to hear the speeches and witness the Masons as they set the cornerstone on the northeast corner.  The cornerstone was anointed with wheat (emblem of plenty), wine (emblem of joy and gladness), and oil (emblem of peace).  Mr. J. C. Shattuck, State Superintendent of Public Instruction said in his address, “Gentlemen of the Board, I charge you, fling away ambition—if you have any—to erect here grand buildings; but let your ambition rather be to create here an educational influence that shall be felt on every farm; in every kitchen; in every workshop; in every cattle camp in the state of Colorado.  Let us remember that no words or ceremonies of ours today can consecrate this soil; but, if in the years to come, our sons and daughters are here trained to greater skill in their various callings; if, above all, the influence of this spot shall make them better and nobler men and women, then, indeed this shall be hallowed ground.” It should be noted that no tablet to mark the cornerstone was installed that day.  This would not be done until the autumn of 1927 when the stone tablet with the inscription: “Laid by the Grand Lodge A. T. F. & A. M. of Colorado, July 27, A. D. 1878-A. L. 5878” was placed on the building.  Recovered and stored after the May 8, 1970 fire, the tablet was brought out and incorporated into the design of the northeast corner of the Morgan Library with its mid-1990s renovation and addition.

It was soon evident that W. G. Bentley was failing to perform the construction as required by the building contract.  The State Board of Agriculture fired him and turned to builder Henry C. Baker from Boulder who was given the contract to finish the $7000 building.  Work was finished by the December 1878 deadline.  By early spring of 1879, wall cracks were discovered along with an improperly connected lightning rod. The roof gutters dropped water too close to the foundation which threatened to ruin the new building.  On May 29, 1879, the State Board of Agriculture voted to finish the two unfinished rooms in the basement of the College Building, erect the necessary sanitary outbuildings, and furnish the windows for the College Building with shutters to protect the glass from hail damage. The outhouse was constructed with brick.  The repairs and upgrades took time and money, but made the structure ready for the September 1, 1879 opening of the State Agricultural College of Colorado and its first students. 

The original building was described in an essay by James R. Miller as being located on a beautiful elevated site west of College Avenue, less than three-fourths of a mile southwest of the business part of Fort Collins.  It offered a magnificent view from every point of the compass.  The basement was 62’ x 43 ½’ with a 9’ ceiling.  The foundation was 5’ below the surface.  The walls were built of the best mountain stone, dressed to a uniform thickness, and finished with raised points, presenting a piece of workmanship unequalled in the state;  impressing everyone with its beauty, strength and solidity.  The basement had four rooms that were well lighted, and could, in the future, if occasion requires, be used for students.  There were three entrances, which were reached by flights of stone steps.  The superstructure was constructed of brick, the front being laid in selected brick of uniform color, and was pronounced as fine work as could be found in the state. The first story was 15’ high in the clear, and contained four rooms beside the main hall and cloak-rooms.  There were two entrances, the front having two heavy doors, reached by a flight of steps and platform.  The rear door was single, and was reached in the same manner as the front door.  The second story was 13’ in height, and was reached by a substantial winding stairway.  This story had two rooms, 14’ x 14’ with a hall and recitation room, connected by sliding doors, so that both rooms could be thrown into one, making a magnificent hall the entire length of the building.  Every room in the building was thoroughly lighted and ventilated, and from the elevated site of the building, each room had a fine view of the surrounding scenery.  The College Building was so arranged that it could be heated either by furnace or stove; was 40’ high and was surmounted by a tower 21’ high, making the extreme height from the ground 65’.  The inside finish was perfect in the minutest particular, while the whole building, from the foundation to the top of the tower, was  constructed in a substantial and workmanlike manner, reflecting great credit on H. C. Baker, the contractor, and was an enduring monument to the educational interests of the State.

Shortly after opening, President Edwards moved his family into rooms on the second floor of the Main College Building.  They lived there from the fall of 1881 until April 1882 when they moved next door to the new College Dormitory so Mrs. Edwards could serve as Dormitory Matron.  Old Main, in essence, was the second official residence of the College President.  The basement served as a residence for Professors Ainsworth E. Blount and Charles F. Davis for a while.  George Glover lived in the Old Main basement for a while when he arrived as a student in 1879

The new building contained the very first College Library which first opened its doors in 1880 as a small reading room on the south side of the first floor. Over the years, more space was allotted as the collection of books and periodicals increased. The Main College Building was the College Library until January 1905 when the books were moved to the upper floor of the building now called Laurel Hall.

In the summer of 1880, rain gutters were installed on the building.  In June 1880, discussions began about building an addition to the College Building.  It would take a decade for this to actually happen.  On April 4, 1889, plans for an addition drawn by Mechanical Engineering Professor James W. Lawrence were accepted by the State Board of Agriculture in a special meeting.  However, outside bids for architectural plans were requested.  On June 7, 1889, Mr. Otto Bulow of Pueblo appeared before the State Board of Agriculture to discuss his architectural plans for the addition to the College Building.  His plans were rejected due to excessive cost.

In the end, Professor Lawrence’s plans were used by the builders Adams and Ellis. The first addition increased the original facilities as well as providing an auditorium/chapel and an armory.  Costing $18,000, it was built in late 1889 and ready for use by May 1890.  Its design was very similar to that used with the nearby Botanical and Horticultural Laboratory built in 1890. 

The auditorium/chapel in the new addition was said to have the most beautiful ceiling in Colorado.   It was decided that electric lights would be installed in this new room and in the adjoining hallways.  The work was intended to be done before the upcoming June 1890 commencement exercises, but did not happen.  Electric lighting and steam heating were installed in the fall of 1890.

In the summer of 1891, massive stone steps designed by local architect Montezuma W. Fuller were installed on the building. By the summer of 1893 it was evident that structural problems existed in the addition.  Mr. Willis Adams Marean, a certified architect from Denver, was hired to determine what needed to be done to fix the problems.  In 1894, work was done to stabilize the building and make the walls and roof safe for occupancy.

The second addition was finished in late 1903.  Standing only 54 feet from the railroad right of way, this plain looking building addition gave the sprawling building a new upstairs auditorium and provided the first gymnasium for the campus in its basement.  The Main Building was now enlarged into a maze of rooms and corridors that seemed to have no organized pattern.  This addition did allow the declining Commercial Department some new space and thus cleared the way for the College Library to move from the Main Building into the former Commercial Building beginning in January 1905. 

In the fall of 1909, a small room in the basement was remodeled into a lavatory for the girls. Besides toilets, it contained wash basins and a shower.  The first indoor flush toilets or water closets had been retrofitted into the Main Building’s basement during the late 1890s as well as a few of the older classroom buildings.  After the construction of the Lavatory building west of the Main Building in 1902, new buildings had restrooms built into their design.

In the summer of 1915, a spectator’s balcony was built in the basement gymnasium to increase the amount of available floor space for playing basketball games.  Poor ventilation in the room was still a problem.  It was this summer that photographer Grant Eddy moved the College Photograph Shop into the basement of Old Main.

Besides theatrical performances, assemblies and speakers, movies were very popular with members of the campus community. In the summer of 1933, the State Board of Agriculture authorized the construction of a moving picture projection booth in the auditorium.  The new projector and its sound system were for the use of the Lyceum Committee of the Associated Students and used under conditions set down by President Lory. 

In March of 1940, the old house lights in the Old Main Theatre were rewired by student Ralph Giddings so they could be dimmed rather than simply being switched on and off.  This made a nicer overall production for theatrical performances.  Passing trains still interrupted the events as they had since the day ground was broken for the building.  “Waiting for the train to go by” was likely the oldest tradition on the campus.

In 1951, after seeing Old Main burn in a vivid nightmare, President William Morgan convinced the State Board of Agriculture to have steel fire escape stairs installed on the 73 year-old building.  It was still recognized that the old building had open interior stairways made of wood and was considered a high risk for a devastating fire.  The new fire escapes did give some added protection for the building users.

For many years the departments of English and Mathematics occupied this building.  Photographic Services occupied the basement for five decades before moving into the newly constructed A-wing of the Social Sciences Building in 1968.  During the 1960s, the aging building was used by the Department of Visual Arts and the Department of Consumer Science.  It was during this same time that the old building was on a list to be demolished due to its age and condition.

The planned demolition did not happen, and by January 1970, a new master plan had been approved and published to raze the two additions and to renovate the original portion of the building and use it as a visitor center and museum.  In February 1970, efforts to get Old Main designated as a historic building by the Fort Collins Landmarks Preservation Commission had been started.  This process was progressing well until the tumultuous events of the Vietnam War era intervened.

Sadly, Old Main was destroyed by a massive fire late in the evening of Friday, May 8, 1970.  Non-student, antiwar activists were said to have been on the CSU campus during the week organizing student demonstrations.  A free concert supporting the antiwar moratorium was being held that evening in the South College Gym.  The moratorium and demonstrations were in response to the Nixon Administration’s approval on April 30, 1970 of the United States Armed Forces being allowed to expand anti-Viet Cong combat operations across the border into Cambodia.

While on his evening patrol of the campus, Sergeant Donald Banks of the University Police Department discovered a fire burning in Old Main at 10:58 P.M. and immediately turned in the alarm.  The fire, believed to have started in the north part of the basement, was raging out of control by the time the first Fort Collins Fire Department firefighters were able to arrive on the scene.  Several explosions that collapsed walls took place during the two hours the old building burned.  Several trees surrounding Old Main were badly scorched by the flames.

Ironically, much like the December 22, 1921 fire at the neighboring building now called the “Old Main Annex,” firefighters were hindered by low water pressure.  Fire hydrants on this part of campus were still located at the end of that branch of the City’s water main system and continued to suffer from low water pressure. 

After a long series of investigations, it was concluded that arsonists were believed to have started this devastating fire along with an unsuccessful fire at the ROTC Pistol Range Building.  Authorities were never able to determine who started the fires.  In the summer of 1970, the rubble was cleared and the site was planted in grass, shrubs and trees.  During the 1990-91 year, a parking lot between Spruce Hall and the South College Gym complex was built where Old Main once stood.  Because of its historical location, this did not happen without protests from many people affiliated with the University.  Many articles appeared in the Rocky Mountain Collegian throughout September 1990 concerning the issue.

In 2015 a new Master Plan was published.  It showed a new building on the Old Main site on the east side of the parking lot.

Old Main, May 8, 1970

Four men are in front of brick building destroyed by fire. One is spraying a fire hose into the structure.

Sources by Gordon Hazard

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Sources by Gordon Hazard

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CSU Collegian, July 1, 1970, p. 1, vol. LXXVIII, no. 146.

CSU Collegian, July 7, 1970, p. 1, vol. LXXVIII, no. 147.

CSU Collegian, July 24, 1970, p. 1, vol. LXXVIII, no. 152.

CSU Collegian, August 18, 1970, pp. 1 and 3, vol. LXXVIII, no. 159.

SBA Minutes, August 14, 1970, pp. 399, 401.

SBA Minutes, August 15, 1970, p. 404.

SBA Minutes, September 25, 1970, p. 417.

CSU Collegian, October 5, 1970, p. 8, vol. LXXIX, no. 10.

CSU Collegian, November 12, 1970, pp. 1, 5, vol. LXXIX, no. 37.

Colorado State University Bulletin, Summer Sessions 1971, February 1971, vol. VIII, no. 3, campus map, pp. 46-47,  LD1146.C61, 1967-72 Archive.

CSU Collegian, November 8, 1971, p. 4, vol. LXXX, no. 33.

CSU Collegian, February 3, 1972, pp. 3 and 5, vol. LXXX, no. 68.

CSU Comments, March 23, 1972, pp. 1 and 3, vol. 2, no. 23.

CSU Collegian, June 22, 1972, p. 4, vol. LXXXI, no. 2.

“History of Zoology and Entomology at Colorado State University 1877-1972” by O. Wilford Olsen, 1973, Introduction.

Rocky Mountain Collegian, May 10, 1974, pp. 10-11, vol. LXXXXII, no. 131.

“A History of Colorado State University 1870 – 1974”, by James E. Hansen II, 1974.

Fort Collins Journal, May 4, 1977, pp. 1 and 3, vol. LXXXV.

“Democracy’s College in the Centennial State – A History of Colorado State University” by James E. Hansen II, 1977, pp. 1, 3, 27-28, 44, 46, 50, 58, 62-63, 75, 81-82, 92, 106, 124, 126, 131, 142-143, 146, 175, 188, 200, 230, 240, 415, 469-470, 473, 477.

Fort Collins Journal, March 30, 1978, p. 4, vol. LXXXVI.

Colorado State University Alumni Association Alumnus, June 1982, pp. 4-5.

Rocky Mountain Collegian, January 21, 1983, pp. 43 and 46, vol. XCI, no. 73. The first three stories of the series appeared in November 15, 1982, November 22, 1982, and December 9, 1982 issues of the Collegian.

“History of Larimer County Colorado 1860-1987 Volume II”, edited by Arlene Briggs Ahlbrandt and Kathryn “Kate” Stieben, Compiled by the Larimer County Heritage Writers, Fort Collins, Colorado 80524, 1987, pp. 218-221, F782.L2H57 1987 v. 2.

Rocky Mountain Collegian, December 2, 1988, pp. 10 and 11, vol. 97, no. 88.

Rocky Mountain Collegian, Mail-out Issue, July 1989, pp. 3, 5, 16 and 17, vol. 98, no. 2.

Rocky Mountain Collegian, May 4, 1990, pp. 1 and 9, vol. 98, no. 154.

Rocky Mountain Collegian, Summer 1990, June 1990, pp. 8 and 9, vol. 98, no. 160.

Rocky Mountain Collegian, September 12, 1990, p. 1, vol. 99, issue 22.

Rocky Mountain Collegian, September 27, 1990, pp. 1 and 5, vol. 99, no. 33.

Rocky Mountain Collegian, September 28, 1990, pp. 1 and 6, vol. 99, no. 34.

Colorado State University Alumnus, November - December 1992, p. 6.

Comment, February 2, 1995, p. 1, vol. 25, no. 18.

“Democracy’s University – A History of Colorado State University 1970 – 2003” by James E. Hansen II, 2007, pp. 20, 25, 43, 57, 58, 68, 69, 70, 88, 97, 99, 107, 149, 175, 279, 350, 379, 389(n16).

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