In April 2015, I began working as a graduate student archival assistant on the Purdue Buildings Project. The project, a comprehensive research endeavor of the entire structural history of the West Lafayette campus, is funded by Richard Funkhouser, a former Purdue University Libraries faculty member for over 44 years. As Funkhouser states, “As a librarian and researcher, I understood the importance of documenting campus buildings, interiors as well as exteriors, before that information disappears.” Additionally, information regarding the Purdue University campus buildings is one of the top inquiries received by the Libraries’ Division of Archives and Special Collections. For many years, Archives faculty, namely David Hovde, have been compiling data on the structures of Purdue. Now, thanks to Mr. Funkhouser, a team of staff and students is working to create a robust online resource for the campus and beyond.
Once complete, the colloquially-named Buildings Project will include a detailed description of every building that has ever been at Purdue. This content will be available for interested parties via an interactive website containing georeferenced maps, photos, and historical information. Indeed, once the information is online, researchers not only at Purdue but around the world will be able to directly access historical documents and data concerning the growth of one of the preeminent research universities in the U.S., thus increasing the depth and scope of scholarly communication at Purdue University and beyond.
Until the formalization of the university archives in 2009, research into the history of the Purdue West Lafayette campus has been decentralized and quite challenging. Even now, researching campus history remains an exercise in patience. In the first months on the project, I engaged in trial and error as I looked for a way to gather information in a way that seemed the least time consuming. Over time, my plan has morphed to gather materials by decades instead of finding one building at a time. Early Purdue building financing, construction, renovation, and use data is often not documented until years after the building was in use. In one example, a building built in 1905 had little to no information recorded in university records until noted in the 1915 Annual Register.
Other challenges include inconsistent or erroneous source materials; in some cases, building names and usage descriptions differ depending on the source. Nevertheless, through documentation and analysis of the data, I have been able to ascertain probable, if not certain, data about most structures. And the research continues. Indeed, I suspect the discovery of information in this manner will continue during the life of the project.
Personally, so far this project has been very insightful and fun to research. As a graduate student I actually don’t engage with the university history as much as I would have as an undergraduate taking the various school tours or courses across the breadth of campus. However, this project has allowed me to learn Purdue history and explore the campus in new ways. I have found it enriching to learn about old customs at the university and to learn what features were once a part of the campus and what features remain decades after their construction.
Over the course of the year I have been working I have learned a great deal about the beginning of the University and some of the issues with the first buildings. For instance, the Men’s Dormitory, built in 1872, was first created without chimneys, leading to heating issues. It was also interesting to learn about the Ladies Hall, built in 1874, where women were required to be chaperoned by a female faculty member. Furthermore, researching buildings leads one to learn a great deal about past campus culture, programs, and attitudes. Of note, Purdue in its early years was very concerned about the integrity of the agricultural program and, as a land grant institution founded to promote the mechanical arts, was hesitant to place emphasis on the humanities as a program of study.
One of the most interesting facts concerning the history of university buildings surrounds World War I. The book Purdue University: Fifty Years of Progress states that under the terms of its contract with the War Department, the University agreed to house, subsist, and train 1,500 men in Section A near the end of the war. The Government pledged itself to one dollar per man per day for housing and subsistence, and twelve cents for tuition. Buildings put into use for men in training included living quarters and sheds for equipment. Fraternity houses also took in family members, mostly wives, until they could find a more permanent living situation. At the fraternity homes dances and other social affairs were often given for the soldiers.
Each day on this project brings its own challenges, yet the team at the archives has been able to research, compare, and combine multiple sources to ensure a detailed description of the buildings. To date I have identified approximately 100 buildings, dating up to 1935. In the coming months and years, Purdue Archives and Special Collection will continue to document the buildings history of Purdue. As Purdue is always growing and changing, so too will this project.
Editor’s Note: Margaret Sheble, a Medieval Literature graduate student within the Department of English, has been a graduate assistant in Archives and Special Collections for nearly two years.