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How Alumni Helped Save the Columns

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The legend of how alumni and locals saw to it that the Columns became Mizzou’s foremost campus icon:
Story by Dale Smith

History of the ColumnsThe inferno that consumed Academic Hall in 1892 somehow spared the six limestone columns. To many alumni and Columbians at the time, they quickly became an enduring symbol of all they loved about the University. But to others, including the University’s board of curators, the Columns looked out of scale with the new university buildings they hoped to construct around them. They resolved that the Columns would have to come down.

Few people now know — perhaps because it weakens the legend — that the board originally intended to leave the Columns in place or reposition them on campus. But the board changed its mind, and some alumni and locals weren't happy with the administrators' plans. Among the naysayers was Jerry Dorsey, a prominent Columbia citizen of the period. According to a newspaper report, Dorsey watched with interest as workers carried off the charred remnants of Academic Hall. He was appalled to learn one day that Gideon Rothwell, President of the Board of Curators, had ordered a pair of mule teams to be hitched to one of the Columns, with instructions to tear it down.

According to the account, “Mr. Dorsey sought Mr. Rothwell and protested against the destruction of the Columns, who insisted that they were a menace and dangerous...Mr. Dorsey declared that the Columns could not be pulled down by a herd of elephants, whereupon Mr. Rothwell announced that they were coming down if he had to dynamite them. The argument became heated, Mr. Rothwell struck at Mr. Dorsey and Mr. Dorsey upheld his Kentucky traditions and returned the blow. Spectators separated the combatants and the controversy continued in a battle of words.”

At this point, Dorsey may have charged off to the courthouse to get a writ of injunction against tearing down the Columns. But writ or no writ, alumni got wind of the board’s plot and added their voices of protest. In fact, the president of the alumni association, Gardiner Lathrop, made a persuasive speech to the curators, according to a story that engineering Professor Luther “Daddy” Defoe (association president in 1903–04) used to tell.

A 1924 account states this: “Following a brilliant plea before the board, during which Lathrop pleaded with tears in his eyes that the Columns be preserved intact, a plan was presented that the whole of the elevated campus [now Francis Quadrangle] be cut away, except for a small tract around the Columns, which should be terraced into mounds, to rise above the level of the campus.”

This time around, the board resolved that its previous resolution was a bad idea. The Columns would remain standing right where they were.



Learn more about the Mizzou Alumni Association.

Read more about the traditions of Mizzou.



Some photos courtesy of University Archives.