Historic Moments
  Rugged terrain becomes site of new University, community

The land now occupied by Northwestern University and the City of Evanston was the site of unincorporated farms and swampland 150 years ago.

That lightly populated rugged terrain became home to a new university and new municipality, thanks to the vision of Northwestern's founders who played a dual role as University leaders and community developers.

The founders purchased the first land for the University in 1853, two years after the State of Illinois granted a charter to establish Northwestern to serve the Northwest Territory.

They first selected 379 acres of lakefront property known as the Foster Farm. The Foster property extended from roughly Lincoln Street on the north to Dempster Street on the south.

The second land purchase a year later was the Billings Farm, extending along the south side of Central Street, from Sherman Avenue west to about Asbury Avenue.

In 1854, Philo Judson, Northwestern's business manager, surveyed and platted the lands, using the name "Evanston" in honor of founder John Evans for the new community. The Illinois Legislature changed the name of the community from Ridgeville to Evanston in 1857 and the city was incorporated in 1863.

The Robinson Farm was purchased in 1855, extending Northwestern's holdings west along Noyes Street, from about Orrington Avenue to west of Asbury.

The Snyder Farm, located between Dempster and Greenleaf and the lake and Chicago Avenue, was bought in 1865. Founder Orrington Lunt in 1867donated property in northwest Evanston, now the site of Ryan Field and athletic facilities.

The establishment of Northwestern University and the development of a community began to attract more people to the area. By 1860, 831 people lived in Evanston, most of them affiliated with the University. By 1870, Evanston had 3,062 residents.

The founders sold and donated land to create a model community - beginning what became the University's long-standing policy of returning non-educational properties to the tax rolls.

The University surveyed, laid out streets, platted, cleared and graded the land that became the heart of Evanston, including the central business district, and began a massive drainage project to expedite development.

Northwestern donated almost all of the land for the first streets and alleys. It sold or donated land for the city waterworks, public schools and parks.

Northwestern also donated or made land available at nominal rent to religious denominations, including Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Methodists, Swedish Methodists, Free Methodists and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. It also assisted other educational institutions in locating here, including Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, National College of Education, Kendall College and Roycemore School.

The University continued its policy of selling land not used for educational purposes a century after its founding. It went to court in 1972 to win permission to sell property donated by John Evans, and in 1976 the Board of Trustees reaffirmed a policy of divestiture of commercial real estate.

The sale of properties has reduced the total Northwestern University land holdings to 242.8 acres, far less than its original 680 acres and the maximum 2,000 acres authorized by the State of Illinois. The holdings account for about 4.5 percent of all the land in the City of Evanston.

Of the total 242.8 acres, 10.4 acres is leased to other nonprofit institutions -- Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, Roycemore School and the Evanston Historical Society; 1.8 acres is income-producing property; and 84 acres was created as a lakefill project at Northwestern's own expense in 1964.

As Northwestern reduced its early land holdings - eventually retaining only 158 acres of the original 680 -- the City of Evanston grew. It absorbed the Village of North Evanston and the Village of South Evanston and annexed other property.

The 19th century farms and swampland - at first home only to a fledgling institution of higher learning -- gave way to a new community that grew to 8.5 square miles and a population of more than 73,000.

[Return to Historic Moments]