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The story of Northwestern's four (or five) Willards

Compiled by Janet Olson, former Assistant University Archivist, Northwestern University Library and Faculty Fellow, Willard Residential College

1. The Real Frances Willard (1839-1898)

Frances Willard taught school, traveled in Europe, and in 1871 was appointed President of the College for Ladies based on her speaking, teaching, and organizational abilities. Due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control (the Great Chicago Fire), the College joined with the University in 1873 and Willard became the first Dean of Women. She resigned a year later to join the new Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, an all-woman organization formed to fight alcoholism. (She later served on NU’s Board of Trustees.) She became president of the WCTU in 1879, and held that post until her death in 1898. In her 20 years as President, she transformed the WCTU in the largest woman’s organization in the U.S., and expanded its goals to include suffrage, labor laws, and many other reforms. Her motto was “Do Everything.” 


She was a notable orator when it was rare for women to speak in public; she joined the Knights of Labor, was a Christian Socialist, wrote a number of books, and learned to ride the bicycle at the age of 53. Willard died in 1898 from pneumonia exacerbated by pernicious anemia.


Her legacy is as remarkable as her life. In 1905 a statue of her –by a woman sculptor—was installed in the US Capitol—the first woman to be so honored. Her Evanston house became a museum in 1900—perhaps the first woman’s house museum in the US. In Deering Library you can visit a bust of Willard, by noted Midwestern sculptor Lorado Taft. 


Another legacy is the complicated issue of racism. In the 1890s Willard and Ida B. Wells—two strong and well-known women—had a conflict over the WCTU’s lack of support for Wells’ anti-lynching campaign. The complex story is described in a virtual exhibit on the Willard House Museum site. 


Who was this Frances Willard whose name is so prevalent at Northwestern? Frances E. Willard was an internationally known social reformer. She was also an Evanston resident for much of her life, with many connections to Northwestern University. She moved here with her parents and siblings in 1858 from Wisconsin. Her brother attended Garrett Biblical Institute, and Frances and her sister attended the North-Western Female College—a seminary for women founded in the same year as the University –1855—but unconnected with the University, which admitted only male students till 1869.


2. Willard Hall, 1901-1938

The first Willard Hall was constructed in 1874, and was originally built to house the students and classrooms of the Evanston College for Ladies—of which Frances Willard had been President, and from which she served her short term as Northwestern’s Dean of Women. It was designed by the same architect who gave us University Hall, Gurdon P. Randall. An annex building was added in the 1890s to house more women students. In 1901, the building was officially renamed Willard Hall and designated as a dormitory for women.

After 1938, the building served as the Music Administration Building until 2015. The building still stands, directly behind Lutkin Hall and next to the Rebecca Crown Center. It is the second-oldest building on campus, after University Hall itself (1869).

3. Willard Hall the second (1938-1970): A Haven for Freshman Women

Needing more room and a more modern space for women students, Northwestern built Willard Hall in 1938—named for Frances Willard in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of her birth. The building completed he block of houses in the women’s quadrangle, and was designed by James Gamble Rogers, the architect for the first group of sorority and unaffiliated women’s houses that was built between 1926 and 1928. (Rogers, known for his Collegiate Gothic style, also designed Lutkin Hall, Deering Library, Scott Hall, and the original buildings on the Chicago Campus).

Willard Room.jpg

The new Willard Hall added 300 rooms to women’s housing, and was intended specifically for freshmen women, who needed extra care and nurture. The building would be the last women’s residence hall constructed before World War II; the next was Shepard Hall, built in 1952. Like Rogers’ other buildings, Willard Hall was a gracious space with many amenities. It included an elegant living room with stenciled wallpaper and a fireplace, tastefully furnished dorm rooms, a recreation area in the basement, and a library where young men could visit during prescribed hours. 

This incarnation of Willard Hall persisted (a little more run-down as time went on) until the academic and social upheavals of the late 19060s.


Faculty Chair Gary Saul Morson and former Willard resident Drew Johnson enjoy a conversation together in the Common Room, accompanied by Frances Willard’s portrait.

4A. Willard Residential College (1971-2016)

In 1971-2, Northwestern University introduced, with some trepidation, two radical innovations: co-ed dorms and the residential college concept. Willard Hall was reborn as Willard Residential College, a co-ed residence and the first non-thematic residential college.

And it thrived, in the same cozy space that the girls had loved since 1938—but a bit more wild. The famous (infamous) “Frances Willard Party,” an annual mock salute to Frances Willard and the WCTU, became notorious for excessive drinking that often led to hospitalizations and property damage, and were finally cancelled in 2003. Still the college retained its free-wheeling and creative spirit, unique camaraderie, and great programming. However, it became more run down as time went on. The basement recreation area became known as the “Rat Trap,” named not for Frances the reformer but for the title character in a 1971 horror movie who was obsessed with rats. Still, Willard residents and fellows continued to meet for High Table in the dining-hall/cafeteria (Chapin residents also shared the dining area) and for firesides and performances in the living room and Rat Trap. 

4B. Willard Residential College, Makeover Version (2017- present)

In 2016, the residents of Willard were moved to a block of rooms in Hinman Hall at 1835 Hinman while the University undertook a massive, greatly needed renovation of Willard Residential College building. It was a tough year for Willard-in-Exile, but the renovation of the building was remarkable, with all the public spaces rearranged and modernized beyond recognition.

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