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Northern Arizona University

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c. 1894–present. Roughly bounded by W. Dupont Ave., S. Knoles Dr., S. San Francisco St., and I-40.
  • (Photograph by Jason Tippeconnic Fox)
  • (Photograph by Jason Tippeconnic Fox)

This public university with an enrollment of approximately 30,000 students was founded in 1899 as the Northern Arizona Normal School (NANS), the territory’s third institution of higher learning, after the establishment in 1885 of both the University of Arizona in Tucson and the Tempe Normal School (later Arizona State University) near Phoenix. What is now Northern Arizona University (NAU) played a significant role in the establishment of higher education in the state.

Located south of Flagstaff’s historic downtown, near the foot of the San Francisco Peaks, the school’s campus was carved from a ponderosa pine wilderness on Arizona’s northern frontier. Flagstaff, which had a population of 1,200 at the turn of the twentieth century, has since sprawled around the urban NAU campus on its north, east, and west sides, pushing campus expansion southward. Presently, the campus is divided into three sections: North Campus, the oldest section, was followed by Central Campus; South Campus is the area built in the post–World War II era.

North Campus is a 14-acre enclosed quadrangle. Embracing the school’s earliest buildings, it contains the largest assemblage of native Moenkopi sandstone structures in Arizona. These buildings display an unparalleled level of craftsmanship, evident in the tooling of the rough-cut sandstone blocks and in the appearance of the beaded mortar joints. This quality reflects the constancy of a corps of Flagstaff masons and contractors who erected the buildings over a four-decade period, including Dan L. Hogan, Joseph Schloser, Ole Soleberg, and P.W. Wommack. The buildings range in styles from Richardsonian Romanesque to Georgian, Colonial, and Italian Renaissance revivals, and are the work of regionally well-known designers, including the Phoenix-based firms Fitzhugh and Byron, Millard and Creighton, and Lescher and Mahoney.

The original land holdings for the school encompassed 41 acres, which the Territorial Legislature had purchased from private property owners in 1894 to establish a reformatory school. By the autumn of that year, the shell of the main building was completed, but funding dried up and construction halted. When further funding was secured in 1897, the Territorial Legislature intended to use the site as a branch facility for the regional insane asylum but Flagstaff’s business and civic leaders objected to juvenile delinquents and the mentally incapacitated. They lobbied, instead, for the Territory to bring formal learning to the Flagstaff through a state teachers’ college.

Teachers’ colleges, or normal schools, were popular in America through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, training high school graduates to become teachers using established pedagogical standards, or norms. Like normal schools across the country (some 300 at the time), the Flagstaff institution offered the traditional four years of high school plus a period of advanced study that resulted in a teaching certificate. Community advocates for a normal school included the Flagstaff merchant George Babbitt and lumber millers Denis Matthew Riordan and Michael Riordan (Michael’s mansion abuts the expanded NAU campus on the west). To help promote the cause of higher education in Arizona, Denis Riordan organized a series of lectures in the summer of 1896, bringing to Flagstaff a number of nationally renowned scientists. The presence of the Lowell Observatory (established 1894) added weight to the argument that Flagstaff could support scientific inquiry and advanced studies. After a lengthy political struggle, Governor Oakes Murphy signed the bill creating the Northern Arizona Normal School into law in March 1899 (House Bill No. 41). With an enrollment of 23 students, the school opened its doors that September.

With NANS’s establishment, the campus entered its first phase of construction. Old Main was completed in 1899 from the unfinished reformatory school structure, which the Los Angeles–based firm Brown and Fisher had redesigned in a Romanesque Revival style. Originally, all of the school’s classrooms and administrative offices were in Old Main. Two Colonial Revival residence halls were the next to be completed: Taylor Hall (1905) and Bury Hall (1908) have both been altered since then. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, wooden boardwalks connected Old Main with the residence halls, while wooden fences kept grazing cattle and horses off school grounds. As the nation entered World War I, two additional dormitories, Morton Hall (1913–1914) and Campbell Hall (1916), completed the quad and marked the end of the first phase of construction.

In 1925, like many other normal schools at the time, NANS discontinued the high school portion of its curriculum in favor of a one- or two-year teacher training program, reorganizing itself as the Northern Arizona State Teachers College (NASTC). During the interwar years, the school underwent a second building boom focusing on additional classroom and activity spaces, including the Blome Building (1919–1920) and the Gammage Library (1929–1930). The school also made significant landscape improvements in these years: volunteer students vegetated the cutover terrain with ponderosa pines, Colorado blue spruce, Douglas firs, elms, poplars, and shrubs. Concrete sidewalks replaced the wooden boardwalks, and lighting fixtures and curbs lined macadamized roadways. More significantly, the north (main) entrance was framed by a 2.5-foot-high, uncoursed basalt and sandstone wall with 8-foot piers holding decorative lights. While building slowed during the Great Depression, at least one new building (North Hall, 1935) was partially financed through the New Deal’s Public Works Administration. Mobilization during World War II stymied growth as well.

A third wave of building occurred after World War II. Anticipating postwar expansion, the school became the Arizona State College of Flagstaff (ASCF) in 1945; it became Northern Arizona University (NAU) in 1966. NAU grew exponentially in the 1960s and a number of academic buildings were constructed south of the quad on what was called the extended (Central) campus. In this part of campus, modern brick buildings broke free of North Campus historicism, both stylistically and materially. As the campus continued to expand southward into undeveloped and forested tracts in the late twentieth century, the South Campus landscape gradually filled with steel and brick buildings of increasingly greater scale, including the J. Lawrence Walkup Skydome (1975–1977).

Today, NAU’s Flagstaff campus (the core of a 36 satellite-campus system) contains more than 90 buildings spread across 740 acres. The newest buildings, such as the Applied Research and Development building (2004–2006), seek to achieve sustainability of form, materials, and performance in a dense campus and increasingly urban environment.


Chambers, Steve, “Northern Arizona Normal School Historic District,” Coconino County, Arizona. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, 1986. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.

Drickamer, Lee C., and Peter J. Runge. Northern Arizona University: Buildings as History. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011.

“Northern Arizona University, 1899-1999: Portrait of a Century: Buildings.” Northern Arizona University Cline Library, Special Collections and Archives. Accessed May 1, 2016.

Writing Credits

Heather N. McMahon
R. Brooks Jeffery
Jason Tippeconnic Fox

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