Old Main: Facts and Fictions

Most people who attend NAU are at least marginally aware of Old Main. Some people believe that it is just a stuffy old building with boring administrative offices. Others will tell you rumors about boiler-rooms in the basement or ghosts haunting the premises. However, I have been working at the NAU Art Museum located in Old Main for two years now, meaning that I have heard it all. Old Main has a rumored past, as well as a rich history.

I was first introduced to the history of Old Main when I toured campus the summer before my freshman year along with a group of teens and parents, led by a bubbly tour guide. The well-intentioned tour guide corralled the group at different locations, dealing out “fun facts” at each stop.

When we arrived at the front steps of Old Main, our guide stood about halfway up the stairs while the rest of us faced the beautiful red stone building. We listened to them give a carefully rehearsed mini-speech about how the building is the oldest on campus and the original school where the first classes were held.

The tour guide then asked for questions, prompting a student to raise a hand and ask, “So, what is in this building now?” They responded, “Just offices. You probably won’t ever need to go into this building, so don’t worry about it.”

I was a bit let down by this response because I was naturally curious about this building. Old Main is a highly recognizable icon of NAU, found pictured on nearly all of its marketing materials. But when students finally get to campus, there is very little opportunity for them to learn its true history.

“A vacant, unfurnished, incomplete structure awaits an undetermined fate in 1898.” Image and caption taken from louie's legacy, an online library of all things related to the history of NAU.

Old Main is a local landmark that represents the rich history of Flagstaff and NAU. That striking red exterior is actually locally sourced Moenkopi sandstone, which is a stone with a rich history all its own.

The first class was held in this building in 1899. Back then, however, it hadn’t yet earned the title of “Old Main” and was simply called “Main Hall.” Those were simpler times: the annual tuition in 1899 averaged just $20 with total student expenses coming to $190.

From 1961 to 1984, Old Main served as a men’s dormitory. In fact, since I have been working in Old Main, we have had more than a few older gentlemen come to visit the building just to see what has changed. This usually sparks their narration of what the building was like when they were in school.

“My friend had a dorm on the third floor, right where that office is.”

“There was a study lounge that looked out over North Quad from the top windows. It was amazing.”

It is so fulfilling to see their faces light up as they remember their time as students: sleeping, studying, and growing in that very building decades earlier. Moments like these make me feel more connected to the legacy of NAU and the alumni who came before us.

Between 1989 and 1990, the second and third floors of Old Main were renovated in order to transform the space into the NAU Art Museum. The second floor is now used as an exhibition space for the works of contemporary artists, allowing this old building to showcase new artistic creations. In the 2017 to 2018 academic year alone five different exhibitions were displayed in the space, ranging from Patrick D. Wilson’s Nomadic Constructions, a collection of video, photography, and architectural forms that explored urban expansion and cultural transformation, to Llewelynn Fletcher’s Diagonal Resistance, which included collaborative works that explored issues in queer politics.

On the third floor are two galleries dedicated to the Weiss collection, which has been a part of the Museum since its founding. The Weiss collection is actually much larger than what is displayed in these galleries. In fact, it would be impossible to properly display all of the pieces at one time. This eclectic collection contains numerous art objects from around the world, including furniture, sculpture, oils, watercolors, china, and silver from such diverse countries as Mexico, Great Britain, France, Peru, Italy, Africa, Costa Rica, India, China, and the United States. The collection also includes works by Native American and other Southwestern artists. In this collection are paintings by the well known Mexican artist Diego Rivera and Philip Curtis, a well respected painter from Jackson, Michigan as well as sculptural works by the Costa Rican-born Mexican artist Francisco Zúñiga. Additionally, there is a sculptural piece by Ben Goo of Honolulu, Hawaii. The works listed above are not displayed year round in the Weiss gallery in order to preserve the quality of the art. However, the NAU Art Museum does do special showings of select pieces from their permanent collection at times. For example, an upcoming exhibition will feature works from the Weiss collection as well as illustrations by Cyrus Baldridge between April 16 and May 18, 2019.

The NAU Art Museum accepted the Weiss collection on April 29, 1983, seven years before the renovations of Old Main were completed. Mrs. Weiss’s background is as fascinating as the collection itself. She was a high school math teacher in Cincinnati, Ohio, who had a great passion for fine art. Throughout her life, Mrs. Weiss made many personal sacrifices to amass the collection that bears her name. When she set out to have the collection bequeathed, she had a clear picture of what she wanted done with her collection. She decided that she wanted to keep the pieces together and leave them all to one university. She also made it a priority that her collection would go on to contribute to the education of generations to come. Leaving the collection to a university ensured this, along with the condition, so she required that the works remain on display at all times, rather then being hidden away. This is why visitors can see her collection on constant display during all operating hours of the museum.

So, when people think of Old Main, it is my hope that the rich history of the building and museum will first be remembered. The ghost stories are fun and don’t have to be completely forgotten. However, Old Main should be a place that students and faculty flock to, in order to remember the past and and be an active part of this university’s future.

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