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John the Baptist

How John D. Rockefeller’s giving made the University of Chicago

    Known as the White City, the World’s Columbian Exposition opened with great fanfare on May 1, 1893. It was a transcendent moment, ushering in the American Century. Designed by Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmstead, the 600-acre exposition featured nearly 200 buildings in the Beaux Arts style and gave rise to the City Beautiful movement.     
    But from the Ferris wheel on the Midway Plaisance, visitors could see the beginnings of another city, often called the Grey City. It was the second coming of the University of Chicago. Ground was broken on the first building in November of 1891, and the university opened without ceremony on October 1, 1892. William Rainey Harper, the university’s first president, suggested the lack of fanfare. When the board objected, Dr. Harper wrote to the university’s primary benefactor, John D. Rockefeller, suggesting that “…the work of the university begin on October 1st as if it were the continuation of a work which had been conducted for a thousand years,” adding that “…personally I am opposed to display and ceremony.”  
    At this point, Rockefeller had made a first gift of $600,000. He would go on to contribute more than $34 million over the next 25 years ($1 billion in today’s dollars). His secretary wrote, “While [Rockefeller] is, of course, closely interested in the conduct of the institution, he has refrained from making suggestions, and would prefer in general not to take an active part in the counsels of management… Donors can be certain that their gifts will be preserved and made continuously and largely useful… only in so far as they see wisdom and skill in the management… No management can gain skill except as it exercises its functions independently, with the privilege of making errors and the authority to correct them.”
    The interest in founding a new University of Chicago (a predecessor institution by the same name closed in 1886) seemed to ignite in 1888. Rockefeller, a Baptist and a member of the board of the Baptist Union Theological Seminary, which later became part of the university, was drawn into these discussions. In 1888, Rockefeller met with Dr. Harper at Yale, where he was being actively recruited. At the time, Rockefeller was being encouraged to endow a new university in New York. In this remarkable meeting, Rockefeller argued that Chicago should be the location of this new institution and implied that Harper should come back to Chicago to lead the new institution. Harper became president in 1890.
    The Committee on Buildings and Grounds met with the architect of the university, Henry Ives Cobb, for the first time in early June 1891. In his initial scheme, Cobb had suggested Romanesque architecture. Two committee members took Cobb aside and persuaded him to use the Gothic.  
    When Abbott Suger rebuilt the great Church of Saint-Denis beginning in 1137, he created the first work of Gothic architecture. Gothic design continued to evolve with a resurgence of Gothic in the 18th and 19th centuries, especially in England. Gothic became an expression of the Enlightenment, viewed as Christian, ethical and moral, in contrast to Classical design.  
    The values of emerging 18th century universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, were increasingly represented by Gothic design and became models for American universities. In The Uses of Gothic: Planning and Building the Campus of the University of Chicago 1892-1932, Jean Block writes: “The choice of Gothic for the University over the popular Classicism of the (Columbian) Exposition had its sources deep in the University’s conception of itself. Classic buildings were financed by merchant princes; Gothic buildings arose through the combined efforts of humble workmen. Classicism stood for burgeoning materialism of the Renaissance, Gothic for timeless religious values.” The ecclesiastical metaphor was one which President Harper used easily. “The university as priest, is a mediator between man and man; between man and man’s own self; between mankind and that ideal inner self of mankind which merits and receives man’s adoration… the university is the keeper, for the church of democracy, of holy mysteries, of sacred and significant traditions.” 
    Where the Great White City was built for a moment in time, an extended summer in 1893, the University of Chicago has been an active part of the city for nearly 120 years. Where Classicism at the Columbian Exposition served to create the impression of shared values, the meaning of the Gothic has always expressed the shared values of  University of Chicago community. In 1892, these values were based on the ethical foundations of Christianity, but they have progressed, having as their foundation academic discourse and diversity measured in every possible way.

Joseph Valerio is presently working on rebuilding the Laboratory Schools at the University of Chicago.

Published: December 09, 2009
Issue: Winter 2009 - Annual Philanthropy Guide