Jim McKee: Charles Russ Richards and his building

Jim McKee: Charles Russ Richards and his building

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New Engineering Building at University of Nebraska

This 1910 photo shows the new engineering building just after completion on the northwest corner of the old four-square-block University of Nebraska campus. The building now houses the Art and Art History Department and includes a gallery and auditorium.

In the 1950s, I was exposed to the University of Nebraska’s E-Week when all the college’s engineering labs were open to the public with student and faculty demonstrations from electrical to chemical and mechanical; I was fascinated. The history of the College of Mechanical Engineering and its interesting, albeit sometimes bumpy, history is likewise  fascinating.

The University of Nebraska was established in 2-year-old Nebraska in its capital city of Lincoln in 1869 with two colleges -- the College of Practical Science, Civil Engineering and Mechanics, and the College of Agriculture. A new state Constitution was approved in 1875, which, among other provisions, stipulated that the regents of the University of Nebraska would be elected rather than appointed and gave them the power to make changes within the school. Two years later, they established five colleges within the university, which unified Agriculture with Science and Mechanics.

It was noted that if they had not done this “it was almost certain that the Agriculture College would have been removed to some other part of the state.”

A pivotal player in both engineering and architecture at the University of Nebraska was Charles Russ Richards, who was born in Indiana in 1871. At about 13 the orphaned Richards was sent to the Purdue Preparatory School, then to Purdue University, where he received his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering  in 1890 and his master's a year later. Moving to Fort Collins, Colo., the then-married Richards was a mechanical engineering instructor during the 1891-92 school year.

Partially because his wife, Lida, did not enjoy Colorado, Richards accepted the position of instructor of manual training at the University of Nebraska, and the couple moved to 508 N. 12th St., today the Social Science and Business Administration Building on the UNL campus.

Almost immediately, his title became assistant professor of practical mechanics, and he began work renovating the Electrical Engineering Building. He soon became aware of the inherited problems of funding, space and the number of students interested in his engineering specialties. By 1896, Richards had become increasingly disappointed in the technology program in which he had a subordinate degree and that his classes in the subject “did not attract as many students as had been anticipated.”

At one point he even “suggested it be discontinued.” In 1898, his position was elevated to professor of mechanical engineering.

It became clear that Richards had talents in architecture as well as engineering, and in 1902 he designed his new home at 1803 A St. Two years later was hired by the city   to design the new A Street Power Plant on the Rock Island Railroad’s right-of-way in the then-developing Antelope Park.

In 1907, Richards was named associate dean of the Industrial College in charge of engineering. When the regents ordered that a building be built for mechanical engineering, Richards lobbied for inclusion of labs and a foundry as well as classrooms and further argued that engineering should be established as one separate college. That June, Richards was appointed architect for the new building but without separate or extra payment.

Two years later, the Industrial College was dissolved, the College of Agriculture spun off, and the College of Engineering was established with Richards as its first dean. The new college had 435 students; Richards had a staff of 15 professors and a cadre of instructors.

The new Revival Renaissance, steel-frame, brick and terra cotta, tile-roofed, $115,000 Mechanical Engineering Laboratories was virtually done in 1910. Richards’ plans included the new concepts of direct radiant heating, mechanical ventilation, excellent lighting and poured concrete floors. The building was dedicated officially in January 1911.

That year also marked Richards' departure from Nebraska to become the dean of the Engineering Department at the University of Illinois. In 1920, the University of Nebraska awarded him an honorary doctorate that was matched by the University of Pennsylvania in 1935.

Richards’ career hit its zenith in 1922, when he became president of Lehigh University, but he did return to Lincoln  in 1923 as a speaker at the dedication of Memorial Stadium.

At the urging of a student group, the Mechanical Engineering Laboratories building was renamed Richards Hall in his honor in 1944. The department itself became the College of Engineering and Architecture in 1947, the College of Engineering and Technology in 1972 and the College of Engineering in 2005.

In 1972, the Nebraska (Scott) Engineering Center, nicknamed “The Block,” opened at 16th and Vine streets and BVH Architects designed the renovation of Richards Hall for the Department of Art and Art History complete with the Eisentrager-Howard Gallery, department offices, classrooms, a papermaking lab and 200-seat auditorium.

Still, through its many alterations, Richards Hall is considered one of the best buildings on the UNL  campus; an eponymous tribute to the first dean of mechanical engineering and its architect who just happened to be the same man.

Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at jim@leebooksellers.com.

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