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Culture 0

The History of Old Main


University of Arkansas - Old Main

This fall as you head to “The Hill” for those much-anticipated Razorback games, set aside time to enjoy a bit of campus history. Especially the history surrounding Old Main. Through the years, Old Main has housed not only academic departments and administrative functions, but also a gymnasium, chapel, museum, library, campus bookstore, and sleeping quarters. She’s a survivor, that’s for sure, withstanding three major fires (1905, 1919, and 1940) and 140 years of change. Just imagine… as the first and oldest building on campus, Old Main has witnessed every Razorback thing.

Old Main, UofA, Historical Sign

Construction and Design:

Local Arkansas materials were used during construction, including lumber milled near War Eagle Mill and hauled to campus by oxen. Bricks were formed from clay dug nearby and fired in kilns built west of the building. The sandstone and limestone visible in the building’s foundation and around windows was mined from a nearby quarry. In 1875 at the time of construction completion, Old Main was the largest building in Arkansas.

Originally named the University Building (and later University Hall), Old Main wasn’t officially named Old Main until 1991, after completion of an extensive twenty-year renovation. Renovation included bringing the building into fire code compliance. The original 19th century Corinthian iron columns in Old Main’s wings remain in place, and the front door hinges are original.

In June 1970, Old Main became the first Fayetteville structure entered into the National Register of Historic Places.

Old Main, University of Arkansas - Second Empire Architecture

The building’s architectural style is French Second Empire Mansard. Considered modern during its time, this style of construction became popular in America in the 1850s and so widely used after the Civil War, it was often referred to as “General Grant Style”. Construction for Old Main was based on plans drawn for the main building at Illinois Industrial University.

I’m sure you’ve noticed the North tower is slightly higher than the South tower. No, this has nothing to do with the Union victory in the Civil War, but was reportedly to provide Fayetteville residents a better view of the clock.

Old Main Clock and Bell

And about the North tower clock… the clock was a long 130 years in the making.

In 1875, times were tough. When construction funds ran out, instead of buying and installing a real clock, a dial was painted on the tower.

But then…

In 2005, after a groundswell of interest from alumni, faculty, friends, and students (including President Bill Clinton), and after raising over $200,000, a custom-made clock (crafted by Balzer Family Clock Works in Freeport, Maine) was installed.

North Tower, Old Main, University of Arkansas

 I love hearing the chime of Old Main’s bells, don’t you? The story of the bells is worth knowing, too. The original solid brass bell, cast in St. Louis at a cost of $1,000, was installed in 1879. Bell ringer students took turns walking across the roof of Old Main to ring the bell each hour to summon the change of classes. How would you have liked that on-campus job?

Today, a computerized bell device plays Westminster Chimes every hour from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. along with a musical selection at noon and the alma mater at 5:00. The device has the sound capacity of over 300 bells in six voices and six octaves. Impressive!

Clock and Bell, Old Main

The original brass bell (refurbished by the Class of 2005) is on public display, along with the clock mechanism, in the Clock and Bell Room on the 4th floor of Old Main. I’d be willing to bet most folks aren’t aware of the Clock and Bell room on campus.

Old Main Arboretum

Old Main Campus Arboretum

How many times have you strolled across the grassy area surrounding Old Main without giving it much thought? Old Main Arboretum has known several lives. Initially, the area was used for growing oats. When military tactics were taught at the University, the grassy expanse was used for military officer training. There was a time when the band practiced and marched there. Today, the arboretum is home to one of every type native tree in Arkansas.

One more thing…

Senior Walk, University of Arkansas

We can’t talk about strolling the campus around Old Main without mentioning Senior Walk. Click HERE to read all about one of the University’s unique traditions.

And now that our Old Main history lesson has concluded, let me hear you say it…

Wooo-pig-soooie! RAZORBACKS!

See you on The Hill!


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Talya Tate Boerner is the author of two award-winning books—The Accidental Salvation of Gracie Lee and Gene, Everywhere. A fourth-generation farm girl and native of Mississippi County, Talya lives in Fayetteville where she is self-proclaimed nature lover and book hoarder. Talya blogs at Grace Grits and Gardening and writes a quarterly column for Arkansas Farm Bureau’s Front Porch Magazine called Delta Child. When she isn’t writing, she can be found playing in her garden.

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