Building Community through Shared History - A KU Memorial Union Program

Fuller's Brushes With Fame

When Lawrence was young, a man named Ferdinand Fuller was perhaps the city’s leading architect. Most of his major works have long since been razed or otherwise destroyed, but in his day, Fuller was reportedly known as designer of “the finest and best business houses of the city.”

His structures included the Free State Hotel (burned to the ground by pro-slavery raiders during the May 21, 1856 “Sack of Lawrence”), and KU’s first building, a three-story hall that came to be known as Old North College. Fuller had enjoyed several brushes with fame before breathing his last on this day in 1886.

He had come to Kansas in 1854 with the first party of Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society abolitionists who were determined that Kansas would enter the Union as a free state.

Led by future Kansas Governor Charles Robinson, this initial group of settlers made camp on a brow of a hill overlooking the Kaw River on August 1 of the year, and took their first meal.

It has been said that wherever two or more Yankees are gathered, a meeting will be called, an organization created, and a chairman elected. In this case, the chairman of the first organized effort to construct a town at the current location of Lawrence, Kansas was Fuller, then a 38-year-old architect from Worcester, Massachusetts.

Another member of this party was Eli Thayer, founder of the Oread Female Institute located in Fuller’s hometown. As the band of free soil advocates had passed out of Worcester on their way to Kansas, Thayer’s Oread school was the last structure visible. To honor this memory, Fuller wrote the words “Mount Oread” on the side of his tent that first evening.

The name was not an instant hit – some early Lawrence residents preferred to call the elevation “Hogback Ridge” or “Devil’s Backbone” – but after the University was established in 1866, the Oread name was formally adopted.

Once Lawrence had been laid out and several buildings constructed, the settlers, now increased in number by 114 new arrivals, reportedly experienced their first encounter with pro-slavery forces. It was a brief confrontation. An individual described only by the name “Stenson,” led the pro-slavery men in a “raid” on the home of Rev. Thomas Ferrill, which was defended by several free-state men including Fuller.

Hostilities ended when Fuller shot one of the Missourians’ bloodhounds in a demonstration of the newcomers’ earnestness. This act, according to an entry in the U.S. Biographical Dictionary of 1879 (most likely written by a Lawrence man), and referenced by the author of Fuller’s obituary, made the point that Fuller possibly fired the first shot of the War Between the States, killing a dog.

Ten years later, when the Civil War really was in full swing, William Clarke Quantrill led his famous raid on Lawrence that left much of the town in ruins. Men like Fuller were undoubtedly involved in the rebuilding process. But apparently, he also found time for new commissions as well. In 1866, he became architect for what would become KU’s first building.

Constructed of brick and stone with a stucco exterior, the hall was built on a pre-existing foundation that remained from an earlier attempt to establish a college in Lawrence. Fuller’s building, which became known as “North College,” or simply “Old North,” was 50 feet square with three floors. Both of the first two stories contained four rooms each, two large and two small.

On the first floor, Professor Francis H. Snow made one of the larger rooms into a chemical lab, and left one of the smaller rooms for the janitor. On the second floor was Snow’s “recitation room” and study, which looked out over Lawrence. On the other side of a wide hallway, or the west side of the building, was the lecture hall and study of Professor David H. Robinson, who taught ancient languages and literatures.

The third floor held a small auditorium on its north side, and two small rooms on the south served as library and museum. Numerous wood stoves heated the building and a cistern supplied water.

Fuller’s building was the home of KU from 1866 to 1872. After the construction of University Hall (now remembered as Old Fraser), Old North remained vacant until 1881 when the Kansas legislature turned it into a school for the “feeble-minded.” (The institution moved to Winfield in 1889.) The building then housed the KU law school from 1889 to 1893, and the School of Fine Arts from 1893 to 1917.

Toward the end of this period, Old North was becoming dilapidated. The walls were separating and the floors were in danger of falling. After Fine Arts moved out, wrecking crews began disassembling the building in 1918. Documents put into a tin box and set in the 1859 foundation cornerstone did not survive. In 1919, a World War I army tank on display in Lawrence was used to complete the demolition of Old North in a “demonstration of the effectiveness of modern science against inanimate objects.”

Fuller’s structure stood where the parking lot in front of present-day Corbin and Gertrude Sellards Pearson halls is located. A small monument honoring Old North, dedicated in 1991, includes the original threshold and one of the window sill stones from the building.

Douglas Harvey
Department of History
University of Kansas


[Source Notes: For the incident with the Missourians and their dog, see U.S. Biographical Dictionary, Kansas Volume, (Chicago: S. Lewis and Co., 1879), 587-588. Fuller’s obituary is in the Lawrence Daily Journal, 12 March 1886. See also Lawrence Daily Tribune, 13 September 1866; The Graduate Magazine 3 (December 1904), 83-84; The Graduate Magazine 16 (March 1918), North College Commemorative Issue. For secondary sources on Ferdinand Fuller’s role in the New England Emigrant Aid Company and the first city government of Lawrence see David Dary, Lawrence, Douglas County, Kansas: An Informal History, 24-25; Richard Cordley, A History of Lawrence from First Settlement to the Close of the Rebellion, 6-9. For the construction of Old North, see J. Howard Compton, “The Building of the University of Kansas,” Master’s thesis, School of Architecture, University of Kansas, 1932, 94-97.]