Last October, University Housing suddenly announced that Neihardt Residential Center, the historic Honors Program dormitory at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was closing indefinitely and being given to the university for its fate to be decided.
A year later, a committee has been formed to decide what should be done, and UNL staff are moving furniture out of the building, whose lights are still on. With the future of this landmark uncertain, it is important to review Neihardt’s prominent place in the university’s history.
In the late 1920s, with only a third of UNL’s female students living in sorority houses and the rest living in increasingly fewer boarding houses, the university saw the need for women’s dormitories. Chancellor E.A. Burnett set in motion the construction of a women’s dormitory in 1929 with the purchase of property on North 16th Street.
The first unit of a planned dormitory complex was designed by Davis and Wilson (architects of the Nebraska Union, Coliseum and Memorial Stadium, along with Burnett, Andrews and Morrill halls) and was built using funds from the Board of Regents, University Dormitory Corporation and the state Board of Educational Lands and Funds.
The Regents named the building Carrie Belle Raymond Hall after the late beloved Dean of Music. Raymond Hall, the elegant Georgian Colonial edifice now known as the focal point of Neihardt’s facade, opened its doors to 170 women in September 1932.
Its full kitchen, telephones, lounges, bathrooms and elevator offered residents “congenial surroundings and modern conveniences” as stated in a Nebraska Alumnus article about the building. Elizabeth Williamson, one of the early women to get a Ph.D. in philosophy, was Raymond’s first director. All residents were under the jurisdiction of the Dean of Women and the Association of Women Students.
Two additional wings opened in September 1939. One was named for Julia L. Love, wife of Lincoln mayor and Love Library namesake Don L. Love. The other was named “Northeast Hall” but was renamed after the late Dean of Women Amanda Heppner, the primary advocate at the University for the construction of women’s dormitories, in 1949. A final wing, named for Dean of Women Elsie Piper was opened in 1956.
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Cather and Pound halls and the Cather-Pound-Neihardt Dining Hall were built east of Neihardt in 1963. These buildings were demolished in 2017.
The newly established Centennial Education Program moved into Love and Heppner wings in 1969. International House, a group dedicated to facilitating intercultural exchange by having international and domestic students live together, was established in 1972 and was housed on the first two floors of Piper Hall. Through CEP and International House, men came to live in the women’s residence halls.
The Regents approved residents’ requests to change the residence hall complex’s name to John G. Neihardt Residential Center, in homage to Nebraska’s poet laureate. The dedication of Neihardt Residential Center took place on Oct. 21, 1973. Neihardt passed away a month later, leaving the building as his sole namesake legacy on campus.
Neihardt Hall became home to the Honors Program in 1992 and developed a tight-knit, engaged community unique among UNL’s residence halls. It had a strong dormitory government whose meetings were consistently attended not only by floor representatives but also by interested residents.
I was Neihardt’s last Residence Hall Association senator, and a current senator told me that people in RHA miss Neihardt’s presence on the body, as student government “took it seriously.” Something about the traditional style of the dormitory and the demographic of its residents made people talk and do things together. This led to the shenanigans, spontaneous events and philosophical conversations that marked daily life in Neihardt.
In the university’s 150th year, it is imperative to examine its past. As UNL’s first dormitory, Neihardt embodies the last century of UNL’s history and represents a time of progress. It has housed ambitious experiments in higher education and honors important figures who have little hope of being remembered through other buildings.
For these reasons, I believe Neihardt should stay, be renovated and be reused, while staying true to its historic character. To do so would honor Neihardt’s importance and preserve a central part of UNL’s history for future students.