The roots of Lake Forest College can be found in the mid-1800’s when a group of Presbyterian ministers and leaders boarded a northbound train in Chicago. Their goal was to identify a suitable location to construct a new community. Lake Forest University, later renamed Lake Forest College, was founded in 1857.
More than 150 years later, Lake Forest has endured as a leading liberal arts college with deep connections to the city of Chicago. It is home to nearly 1,600 students from all over the country and the world. You can read more about the history of Lake Forest College below.
Table of Contents
- Founding 1857-1875
- Lake Forest University 1876-1890s
- Liberal Arts College 1890-1940s
- World War II Expansion 1945-1955
- New Beginnings 1955-1970
- Postmodern College 1970-1990
- Traditions and Renewals 1990-2010
The history of Lake Forest College is mirrored in the campus and its surroundings. The range of architectural styles and the spacious park-like landscaping are the physical embodiment of the many distinct phases in the College’s life. This significant historical record has, for the first time, been published in book-length form in 30 Miles North: A History of Lake Forest College, Its Town, and Its City of Chicago.
The desire for a park-like setting for the campus dates to the founding of the institution in 1857. The crescent of three yellow-brick buildings (then College Hall, North Hall, and Patterson Lodge) was created in the early days of college-level instruction from 1876 to 1890. The Gothic and Tudor style buildings (Holt Chapel, Reid Hall, Durand Commons, and Carnegie Hall) reflect the adoption of a liberal-arts college model around the turn of the century and the divestiture of graduate programs.
Post–World War II expansion is apparent in the crisp functionality of the Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse. The educational rededication of the post-Sputnik and New Frontier eras is seen in the International Style influence of the buildings of the 1960s (Johnson Science Center, Durand Commons, Donnelley Library, South Campus residence halls, and the Sports Center). The comprehensive renovation of key buildings (including Young Hall, Patterson Lodge, Reid Hall, Durand Art Institute, and the old gymnasium [now called Hotchkiss Hall]) recognized the importance of the College’s past, the commitment to stewardship, and the desire for top quality that typified the 1970s and 1980s under president Eugene Hotchkiss III.
The inauguration of Dean of the Faculty David Spadafora as president in 1993 signaled new emphases on strategic planning for the academic and physical aspects of the College. When the Board of Trustees announced that Stephen D. Schutt of the University of Pennsylvania would become president on July 1, 2001, it was with the anticipation that this too would be a period during which the College might undergo change moving it forward, while respecting the importance of its past. This expectation has been met as enrollment reached historically high levels and as three core building complexes were significantly renovated and expanded.
The city of Chicago grew from a few buildings and a fort in the early 1830s to 28,000 residents by 1850. In 1855, Chicago Presbyterians, led by Second Presbyterian Church pastor Robert W. Patterson, set out north on the new railroad to find a site for an educational institution that would be beyond the Methodist Northwestern University in Evanston. The group stopped the train about halfway between Evanston and Waukegan, walked over to the lake at the highest point along the shore, and determined to establish Lake Forest: the University and the town.
The founders hired Almerin Hotchkiss of St. Louis to lay out the new city in 1856–57. Perhaps the first full city plan with curvilinear streets and a town center (the campus), it reflected the same romantic, anti- or counter-urban landscape impulse that was energizing New York City to fund F. L. Olmsted’s Central Park plan. The Lake Forest Association had been formed early in 1856 to develop 1,200 acres, with proceeds from the sale of lots going toward the creation of a University Park in its center.
Lake Forest Academy, the first stage of the University plan, began in 1858. Collegiate-level instruction got underway in 1860–61, but it could not be sustained through the Civil War. Still, by the mid-1860s an academy building (on the site of the present Durand Art Institute), a small Presbyterian church, and several homes formed a New England-style village centered at the corner of Deerpath Road and what now is Sheridan Road. This included the home of Sylvester Lind who had pledged $80,000 to launch the University, which was called “Lind University” in the original charter. But in 1865 the name reverted to Lake Forest University—the name first used in Association minutes in 1856, and the one by which it would be known for the remainder of the century.
The Lind story reflects the fluidity of plans in the early years. Lind lost his fortune in the Panic of 1857. The artillery that blasted Fort Sumter in 1861 also scored a direct hit on undergraduate studies; college level work would not resume until 1876—after the Chicago Fire and the rebuilding of the area economy.
Lake Forest University 1876–1890s
In 1876 Mary E. Smith Farwell of Lake Forest, the spouse of U. S. Senator Charles B. Farwell, decided that her able daughter, Anna, should remain at home while pursuing a college degree, but that she needed the kind of intellectual exposure that a coeducational college of the Eastern sort would offer. Mary Farwell herself had studied as a young woman with the daughters of Mark Hopkins, a key architect of the American college ideal, in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Thus, she launched Lake Forest College, a division of the University, in a wooden lakefront gingerbread-style hotel that had been bankrupt in the Panic of 1873. She hired faculty and gave scholarships to some capable Chicago high school students and, under the distinguished leadership of the Reverend Patterson as the first president, the College was in business.
During the second winter in the unheated resort hotel, a student’s illicit room fire took hold and leveled the building. In the summer of 1878, using bricks made from clay found on the site of the present Donnelley Library, College Hall (now Young Hall) was built. This College building, with its library, laboratories, chapel, and dormitory rooms housed the nucleus of a university. For a few years Lake Forest aimed to emulate the German university model then in vogue at Cornell and Johns Hopkins universities, with an emphasis on graduate education and research, while serving as preparatory ground for Presbyterian ministers.
In Lake Forest, the University charter now served as an umbrella for a vertical educational institution including the Academy (boys) and Ferry Hall (girls) at the pre-college level, the College itself with some graduate offerings, and various professional schools in Chicago such as those that would become Rush Medical School, Chicago Kent Law School, and Northwestern University Dental School.
Liberal Arts College 1890–1940s
By the 1880s Chicago’s population was approaching one million; waves of immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and elsewhere were fueling the engine that drove the western empire with native-born capitalists at the controls. Labor strikes began to disrupt civic harmony. The Haymarket Riot of 1886 galvanized many of the elite into relocating from Prairie Avenue in Chicago to Lake Forest. Early presidents—the Reverend Daniel Gregory (1878–86), the Reverend William C. Roberts (1886–92), and Dr. John M. Coulter (1893–96)—modernized the curriculum from the classics-based program of founding President Patterson into a balanced and expanded modern curriculum with majors and electives. In 1891, a gymnasium (architect Henry Ives Cobb) was built with additional funds from the Farwell family. This Richardsonian evocation of European fortress architecture provided a site for fitness training.
The Reverend James Gore King McClure, from the time he came to Lake Forest as pastor of the Presbyterian Church in 1881 until his death a half-century later, was a key factor in developing the College. Within a few years of his arrival, the congregation had enabled the construction of a number of new buildings. The 1887 church facing the campus was built from spotted limestone salvaged from the Second Presbyterian Church in Chicago after it was destroyed by the Chicago Fire in 1871. The architects were Henry Ives Cobb and Charles S. Frost, the originators of a firm that would build most of the campus buildings in the next quarter-century.
McClure assumed the University presidency in 1897 and was a crucial voice for building a strong college to educate new generations for leadership nurtured by the church. As a trustee (1889-1923) he had encouraged the construction of the Durand Art Institute in 1891-92, and then as president (1897-1901) he oversaw the building of Lois Durand Hall in 1898–99 and Reid Hall and Holt Chapel in 1899–1900. After the turn of the century, he left the University presidency and in 1905 assumed that post at Chicago’s McCormick Theological Seminary. But during McClure’s tenure the College had moved from a pluralistic graduate and professional emphasis to a singular undergraduate liberal arts focus. He continued to summer in Lake Forest in the house his grateful congregation gave him just west of North Campus and to participate in the life of the College through the 1920s.
After 1900 under president Richard Harlan (1901-06) a new College took shape, with the construction of several buildings around the Gilded-Age yellow-brick ensemble. These Medieval-influenced Beaux Arts buildings were small-scaled to suit the now purely collegiate mission. From a 1906 plan were built Harlan and Blackstone halls, Durand Commons, and Carnegie Hall. The new edifices addressed their builders’ desire for order and tradition—a place away from the struggles of the metropolis to the south and reaffirming a revered cultural heritage.
The academic program gained significant recognition for quality in the 1910s under president John S. Nollen (1907-1918).
In the 1920s, following the early 1900s re-engineering from university to college, the Academy and Ferry Hall separated from the College, forming their own boards of trustees (after 1893 the Academy was located on what is now South Campus). The four-year liberal arts program led by president Herbert M. Moore ’96 (1920-42) became the sole focus of the institution. This was the golden age of collegiate life in America. The concern for fitness, which prompted the construction of the 1891 Gymnasium (today Hotchkiss Hall), also brought intercollegiate athletics, with Lake Forest being one of the 1880s founders of football on this level. The legendary coach Ralph R. Jones, who also had coached the Chicago Bears, influenced generations of students late in this period. Student publications—the Stentor weekly newspaper and the Forester yearbook (through 2002)—were both established by the turn of the century.
Also, the Garrick Players were formed. Much of campus life as it is known today took shape in this exciting time. Fraternities and sororities were established and provided leadership for campus social life.
Post–World War II Expansion 1945–1955
A fourth stage of growth emerged with World War II and the presidency of Ernest Johnson (1942–59). Large numbers of Lake Forest students and alumni went off to join the armed forces, and many gave their lives for freedom. The campus itself served the war effort as a military training center. In 1946 a major fire in the Academy building on what now is South Campus led the thriving preparatory school to seek a larger site—the J. Ogden Armour estate in West Lake Forest—and the College took over South Campus in 1948 to prepare for its own post-war growth.
During this period the College developed important links with the region through the introduction of summer and evening credit programs. The predecessor of today’s independent Lake Forest Graduate School of Management was founded just after the war. The College’s enrollment swelled, as highly motivated veterans returned to study and as local industrial needs and ambitions were addressed. New utilitarian buildings, such as the Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse, were built in the early 1950s to meet the needs of an expanding College.
New Beginnings 1955–1970
By the mid-1950s the post-war need for higher education had peaked. Traditional ties to the Presbyterian denomination seemed less relevant to a nation challenged by Sputnik and by the diversity of a shrinking world. The College redefined its relationship to the denomination, leading to a broadening of the faculty’s cultural base. A campus cultural office symbolized this new outlook, bringing major speakers from all perspectives and backgrounds, including such mid-20th Century writers as Julian Huxley, Arnold Toynbee, and Gwendolyn Brooks and politicians such as Lake Forest area resident Adlai Stevenson. Evening fireside chats at faculty homes or at the homes of neighborhood trustees brought those in the community together with students and faculty.
In 1960, a new president, William Graham Cole (1960-69) from Williams College, brought with him Eastern faculty and students. New buildings (the Johnson Science Center, Donnelley Library, Durand Commons, the South Campus residence halls, and the Sports Center) sprang up to house both an ambitious academic effort and new students. The establishment in 1962 of a Phi Beta Kappa chapter recognized the drive for excellence that characterized the period. National fraternities and sororities and their policies yielded to new idealism for campus organizations as students now pursued inclusive activities and social goals.
Postmodern College 1970-1990
The expansiveness of the early 1960s disappeared in the national gloom of the Vietnam War era. In 1969, a mysterious blaze in the 1891 Gymnasium, which then housed both the ROTC chapter and also a radicalized Stentor, punctuated (once again with fire) a significant transition in the life of the College. Eugene Hotchkiss III, an experienced administrator raised on the North Shore, became president (1970-93), reaffirming the effort to establish the educational quality that had been targeted in the previous decade.
The strong faculty was augmented by a new generation of scholar-teachers, and enrollment stabilized in the 1980s at approximately 1,100 to 1,200 highly capable students. Core course requirements were dropped by 1972 in favor of academic advising and pursuing strong major areas of study. The College joined the Associated Colleges of the Midwest in the early 1970s to broaden the range of options open to students, supplementing its own Athens program with internships here and abroad in Paris.
In 1965 the charter of 100 years earlier was redrafted, and the name officially became Lake Forest College, as a bachelor’s degree had been the only earned degree offered since the turn of the century. A mere decade later, the College obtained accreditation to grant a master of liberal studies degree as part of a continuing education program for non-traditional-aged learners.
The College’s diverse past was respected as, one by one, key buildings were renovated (Lily Reid Holt Chapel in 1978, Durand Art Institute in 1981, Durand Commons and Young Hall in 1982, Donnelley Library in 1983, and Reid Hall in 1987), culminating with the 1988 reopening of the 1891 Gymnasium (renamed Hotchkiss Hall in 1993) to house academic departments and also the 1990 expansion of Johnson with the Dixon Science Research Center.
Less visible was the modernization taking place in academic support areas in the 1980s. The library was linked by an online network to a shared statewide catalog and circulation system centered at the University of Illinois and including dozens of other academic libraries. Personal computers were distributed on campus and networked to the campus mainframe.
Student life in the post-Vietnam era sought to recreate the college experience, by reviving old forms (fraternities and sororities) and promoting the recent socio-political causes. The provisional revolutionary student government was a brief phenomenon. Groups of students who had similar interests lived together in the residence halls in purpose units, which were an informal alternative to the closely bonded groupings of earlier times. By the 1980s the sorority and fraternity system had made a significant comeback. Athletics remained important. Sports such as handball, hockey, swimming, soccer, volleyball, and women’s basketball offered new outlets for student enthusiasm and, often, athletic achievement.
Traditions and Renewals 1990–2010
With the arrival of David Spadafora from Yale University in 1990 as dean of the faculty (and starting in 1993 as president), the College embarked on many new initiatives, including a return toward a central, shared curricular experience for students.
Today, the College focuses on balanced, traditional liberal-arts disciplines. The foundation as always is a strong and dedicated faculty. A spirit of reconnecting with Lake Forest College traditions characterized this latest historical phase, which placed renewed emphasis on alumni involvement. Four major administrative positions were held by graduates in the 1990s, and alumni came to constitute half of the Trustees. Still there were innovations. Following perhaps the most comprehensive strategic process in the College’s history, a departmental major in communications was introduced and later also in theater. Dramatic change in the distribution of information was recognized in the merging of the library and information technology in 1996. Modernization and renovation of Cleveland-Young International Center, Deerpath and Nollen Halls, Durand commons, and the Chapel in the 1990s brought these up to 21st C. standards. By the fall of 2000, enrollment, which in the early 1990s had dipped below 1,000 students, had increased significantly to 1,258.
Early in 2001 the College announced the appointment of Stephen D. Schutt as the College’s 13th president. The new president inherited a rich legacy—with over 13,000 alumni of record, a strong and well-prepared faculty, and a diverse and able student body on a scale approaching historic levels.
Though the decade included two serious economic recessions, under president Schutt the enrollment grew to 1,400 FTE mid-decade and remained above 1,300 in 2010. His administration too has declared a goal of further increasing student body size, while introducing new cooperative and other programs, including offering a master of arts in teaching in the education department for Fall 2010. New curricular emphases in the decade included greater integration of Chicago resources into instruction, made visible in the Center for Chicago Programs, and also increased global involvement. The latter has been achieved through a more diverse and international student/faculty community and by enhanced opportunities for off-campus study, boosted by the $7 million Grace Groner ’31 study abroad and internship legacy of 2010.
The College celebrated its sequicentennial, its 150 years of history, in 2007, in an era of historic progress in many areas. This includes athletics under the leadership of the College’s winning-est Athletic Director in its history, Jackie Slaats, surpassing the record of the legendary Ralph Jones in the 1930s and 1940s. Faculty authors in significant numbers, too, continue to contribute notable books and significant articles to their fields, a pattern established in the 1980s.
Also notable has been the greatest growth in campus buildings since the 1960s. This development began with the major renovation, reconstruction and expansion of the 1964 Donnelley Library, 2002-04, now Donnelley and Lee Library. It continued with the completion in 2006 of the Mohr Student Center and the renovation of the 1962 Commons, now Stuart Commons. And this growth has continued in 2010 with the opening of the 63,000 sq. ft. Recreation, Sports, and Fitness Center, adjacent to the 1968 Sports Center.