North Central College - Naperville, IL

Nichols Hall fire led to expanded facilities

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Nichols Hall, pre-1929
Nichols Hall, pre-1929

As North Central College looks back on its 150-year history during its yearlong Sesquicentennial celebration, February presents an opportunity to recall a devastating event that resulted in major transformations to the school and campus.

On Feb. 23, 1929, a fire of unknown origin destroyed Nichols Hall. When the building opened in 1902, it was just the second structure on campus—joining Old Main—and represented the growing importance of physical education and athletics in the lives of college students.

Nichols Hall was named after James L. Nichols (1851-1895), an 1880 alumnus who bequeathed funds to build the gymnasium and Naperville’s public library. After graduating, Nichols returned to teach business courses at the College, authored several books about business practices and founded a successful publishing company.

While the fire totally destroyed Nichols Hall, the catastrophe did hasten plans to build improved athletic facilities. As reported in the Feb. 26, 1929 issue of the student-run newspaper, the Chronicle, “The fire, although an upset in the smooth running affairs of the college, will only serve as a goad to plans already under way. The need of better facilities has been felt for some time and has prompted preliminary action.”

The action was spearheaded by Edward E. Rall, who served as the college’s fifth president, from 1916 to 1946. The longest-serving of North Central’s nine presidents, Rall’s tenure spanned the crisis of World War I, the boom years of the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression and World War II. Among Rall’s many strengths was his skill in securing donations for facility improvements that endure to this day.

In 1923, alumnus Peter Kroehler—founder of Naperville’s Kroehler Manufacturing Company—donated money that enabled the college to acquire land known as the Fort Hill Campus. Today, a historical plaque on the property describes how in 1832, the Fort Payne stockade was built on the site and soldiers protected settlers from roaming bands of native Americans during the Black Hawk War.

In the 1920s, the college acquired the land from the estate of Naperville’s Judge John S. Goodwin. After the Nichols Hall fire, Rall’s leadership and the generosity of the Pfeiffer family—G.A. Pfeiffer, Henry Pfeiffer and Annie Merner Pfeiffer—led to the construction of Merner Field House. Upon its dedication on Jan. 23, 1931, it was the second-largest college athletics facility in Illinois. Merner Field House is an example of the great vision of the College’s leadership throughout its history.

Today, similar visionary leadership is evident with the new building next to Merner Field House. The Residence Hall/Recreation Center is an environmentally innovative, LEED-certified structure that is the first in the nation to combine a residence hall and recreation center on a college campus. In addition to being home to North Central’s national champion indoor track & field program, the facility houses more than 300 students and features facilities that enable the instruction of athletic training, physical education, exercise science and other areas of study.

The Res/Rec Center is large enough to comfortably accommodate expositions, graduations and other big events. On May 20, the first concert will be held in the Res/Rec Center when the popular band Switchfoot performs.

North Central’s celebration of its Sesquicentennial continues through Commencement on June 9. Visit to learn more.