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The University of Chicago, now known as the Old University of Chicago (also called Chicago University), was a school founded by Baptists in Chicago in 1857. It eventually failed in 1886, and was succeeded by the present University of Chicago; its small number of alumni were later recognized by the current University of Chicago.
Its physical plant was felled by a fire, and a lone remaining stone from its edifice has since been implanted into the wall of the arch between the Classics building and Wieboldt Hall on the current University's main quadrangle.
The institution known as the Old University of Chicago was originally established as the University of Chicago in 1856 on a 10-acre (4.0 ha) tract of land donated by Senator Douglas. Founded as a Baptist school, the University faced great financial difficulties throughout its short history and was forced to close in 1886. In its early years from its founding in 1857 to 1869 it benefited from the oversight of Trustee James Hutchinson Woodworth who also served as Treasurer. Woodworth was a former Chicago Mayor and at the time of his service as Trustee was also the President of the Treasury Bank of Chicago. The institution's precarious financial position was sustained due to the efforts of Douglas, Woodworth and others, but that limited financial stability deteriorated rapidly after the untimely death of Woodworth in 1869. During his tenure, the University established the Union College of Law, the city's first law school in 1859. In 1873, the Law School became jointly associated with Northwestern University. Today it is the Northwestern University School of Law.
At the final meeting of its Board of Trustees in 1890, the group officially changed the name of the institution to the Old University of Chicago so that the new Rockefeller-financed Baptist school, then being organized, could exist as a completely separate legal entity, thereby assuming the title of the University of Chicago.
While never a religious man, Senator Stephen A. Douglas was an avid promoter of Chicago, and donated 10 acres of his lakefront property, worth $50,000, to the school. Critics said that he only wanted to enhance the value of his adjoining lots. Douglas had first offered the property of the future university to the Presbyterian Church for a potential Presbyterian seminary. However, when the church group failed to raise the $100,000 that was a necessary precondition, he offered the site, located at Cottage Grove Avenue and Thirty-Fifth Street, to a group of Baptists. Due to the religious nature of its founding, the charter required that a majority of the members of the Board of Trustees be of the Baptist persuasion. However the school made no such encumbrances on either faculty or students. Despite the title of university, the tenor of the instruction was primarily collegiate and vocational in nature, with two hundred to five hundred students enrolled annually in preparatory, collegiate, law, and medical schools.
The new institution began almost immediately to encounter financial difficulties. The controversy surrounding Douglas' connection with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which was regarded by many as a betrayal of the anti-slavery cause, proved a major liability in fundraising. Additionally, the financial panic of 1857 severely affected the financial holdings of many of the principal investors, rendering most of the initial subscriptions worthless. Nonetheless, the trustees proceeded with many shortsighted plans to build the university, including construction projects that were clearly beyond the school's means. With the university’s debt mounting rapidly, the president, J. C. Burroughs, and the trustees succeeded in securing new investments in the form of a second wave of subscriptions, but just as it seemed that the institution might gain some manner of fiduciary solvency, the 1871 Great Chicago Fire, and the concomitant financial panic of 1873 plunged it into financial peril once more. A fire at the university’s main physical plant created additional setbacks in 1874.
Within the university’s administration, the situation was equally turbulent as disagreements between the Board of Trustees over fundraising, financial management, and faculty appointments escalated into open conflict. President Burroughs and his most vocal opponent, trustee W. W. Everts, left the board amid the wake of this infighting, but the trustees decided to keep Burroughs affiliated with the university, creating for him the post of chancellor and making him responsible for the school's financial affairs. However, this move at conciliation did not bring to a halt these internal conflicts among the university's trustees, as the new president and the chancellor continued to be at odds, as various and sundry administrators arrived and departed in rapid succession.
Union Mutual Life Insurance Company, the university's chief creditor, brought suit in 1881 to foreclose the mortgage on the university's property. In January 1885, the court found in favor of the company. The trustees' hope of redeeming the property proved illusory: the university closed in the autumn of 1886 and the main building was razed in 1890.
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