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There is memory in architecture.

Although Bancroft Hall no longer stands on campus, it remains a vivid memory for the many faculty members, students and staff who worked and studied there over the years. Buildings, particularly older ones, are characters in and of themselves; the really interesting characters always have stories to tell. This is the story of Bancroft Hall. A story of the past and the future, of people, of how a building’s eccentricities brought it to life.

“I never look at the place when I drive by,” said Adeline Nolde, secretary for the Department of Engineering Mechanics from October 1945 until her retirement in July 1991. “I just can’t.”

Her sentiment is echoed by many staff and faculty members who fondly remember the flawed, yet endearing, building. Bancroft Hall was built in 1914 as Bancroft School, an elementary school and pre-vocational junior high. Though he had no Nebraska ties, the school was named for George Bancroft (1800-91), a historian and diplomat who wrote a 10-volume history of the United States and founded the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis while serving as the Secretary of the Navy. No expense was spared; by the time construction was finished, Bancroft School cost $204,540.10.

Although it was supposed to be dedicated on Nov. 11, 1915, the actual dedication of the school took place in December because of a smallpox epidemic. The building on the corner of 14th and U streets boasted an auditorium that held 600 students; boy’s woodwork, printing, electric wiring and concrete shops; a housekeeping suite that included laundry, sewing and fitting rooms; a cooking laboratory for girls; and locker rooms with showers—all on the first floor. The principal’s office (with its own fireplace), a library, teachers’ room and four classrooms were located on the second floor, with eight classrooms on the third floor.

Bancroft Hall office workers, circa 1943

Bancroft Hall classroom, circa 1943

Bancroft Hall, circa 1955

Bancroft Hall, circa 1991

Bancroft Hall being demolished, 2001

Greenspace takes the place of Bancroft Hall

In one classroom on the third floor were drafting tables built by prisoners in the state penitentiary. The tables were bolted to the floor and drafting students each had their own drawer so they could lock up their instruments and drawing boards. Coat hooks, set at the height of children, were installed across the back wall of every classroom.

In 1941, the Department of Engineering Mechanics bought Bancroft School from the Lincoln School District for $77,000. It was the first and only department at the university to own a building, a source of pride among current and former faculty and staff. The money was raised through a program established by George R. Chatburn, who served as chairman of engineering mechanics from 1905 to 1931. In cooperation with the Nebraska Department of Roads, Chatburn and his colleagues initiated a program to test highway materials in the department’s laboratories for a fee. With those funds, the department purchased the building and major pieces of equipment for its laboratories. The laboratory addition to Bancroft Hall was built by the Works Progress Administration and became the new home of the testing facility, which housed the largest test machine (with a capacity to load a half-million pounds of compressive load) in the Midwest.

“It was a grand old building, and it was built in style,” said Richard DeLorm, retired professor of engineering mechanics. “There were a lot of neat things about the building that you just had to find out for yourself. The heating ducts were formed from metal advertising signs as a conservation measure.”

Bancroft Hall’s grandeur included genuine tin ceilings, bathrooms and marble staircases; high, sweeping ceilings; large classrooms with slate chalkboards that lined the walls from floor to ceiling; and balconies outside many professor’s offices.

“I was sad to see the building go, but it was originally built as an elementary school,” said Seh-Ieh Chow, interim chair of engineering mechanics. “The facility was aging, and there was a lack of lab space.”

“You could never forget that the building used to be an elementary school,” DeLorm said. “The water fountains were only 30 inches off the ground. We really had to hunch over to get a sip of water.”

The elementary school remained in Bancroft Hall until the mid 1960s and in a twist of irony, F. Woods Haecker, the architect and project manager who oversaw the construction of Teachers College and the demolition of Bancroft Hall, attended elementary school at Bancroft as a child. “Because I’m an architect, I’m a preservationist. I was disappointed to see Bancroft Hall demolished,” he said. “It was a nice, solid building, but you cannot preserve a building unless it is functional.”

Toward the end of Bancroft Hall’s tenure on campus, the plumbing needed repair; there were issues with power, computer cabling, the telephone system and lighting; and the paint was peeling. “Bancroft had very high ceilings, so it was difficult to heat,” Haecker said. In January 1998, Bancroft Hall made it’s own case for renovation needs during a news conference in which NU President Dennis Smith, then-Gov. Ben Nelson and Sen. Dan Lynch laid out the reasons why the university needed a bond issue to fund building renovations. In a chorus of agreement, the radiator pipes began wreaking havoc, nearly drowning out the speakers’ remarks. And there was another problem: the building was lined with asbestos, which is costly to remove. The biggest impediment to keeping Bancroft Hall functional, however, was making the building handicapped accessible.

“I enjoyed Bancroft. It was old, but serviceable,” said Betty Stukenholtz, a staff assistant for engineering mechanics. “There was beautiful marble everywhere, it was close to everything on campus, we had more interaction with students. Over here [Nebraska Hall] I feel isolated from them. At the same time, the department faculty are closer to each other and we have access to other departments, as well as the dean.” Stukenholtz also recalls the many unique aspects of the building, including closets with built-in shelves and drawers and three sub-basements.

“There was a large empty area downstairs, in one of the basements,” DeLorm said, “And there was this guy, Urbach, who made ultra-light aircrafts. He would tape up every crack and hole in the room to create an airless environment, then take pictures of his planes when he flew them.”

In Room 305 the Ham Operators of Lincoln kept ham radio equipment. “We were available whenever there was a storm, or a tornado on the horizon,” said David Cook, a retired engineering mechanics professor. “Really, we were the first indication of any trouble to come. But I didn’t worry too much about Bancroft being demolished because we were out of the building at that point.”

The Department of Engineering Mechanics moved from Bancroft Hall to Nebraska Hall in 1996, in efforts to consolidate the College of Engineering & Technology. Still, neither the building nor its occupants were forgotten. “I took many classes in Bancroft Hall. It was a nice, solid building,” said Feixia Pan, a graduate who now works as a research engineer for Nokia Research Center. “In fact, I took all but one of my engineering mechanics courses there. Most of my classmates and I usually worked late into the night in Bancroft. We would often see a really nice custodian named James there, working hard as well. It was always a pleasure to run into him.”

As the University began developing the Campus Master Plan, several buildings were placed under scrutiny, including Bancroft Hall. As late as 1997, recommendations were made to preserve the building by replacing it’s mechanical and electrical systems, installing elevators and other accessibility-related modifications, installing a sprinkler system, repairing windows and doors, replacing lighting fixtures, upgrading the telecommunications systems and restoring interior finishes. The price tag? $7,810,484.

Bancroft Hall was demolished in August 2002. “Life has gone on like it was never there,” Haecker said. “I’m shocked that there was no substantial protest about the demolition.”

In fact, from all outward appearances, it seems as if Bancroft Hall was never there. Where the building used to be, there is green space. An uninterrupted view of the new Kauffman Center, home to the J.D. Edwards Honors Program—the future, unimpeded by the past. Representatives from the State Historical Society wanted artifacts from the building, but extracting those artifacts proved to be too difficult. Instead, they were given the original drawings and plans of the building.

“It was a beautiful building,” said Alexander Spivak, who earned his Ph.D. in engineering mechanics in 2000. “And it was a shame that Bancroft Hall was demolished. The University should preserve the buildings that reflect the campus’s history.”

For now, however, Bancroft Hall is preserved in the hearts and minds of the students, faculty and staff who resided within its walls for so many years. A faint outline of a memory of what used to be and, perhaps, of the future to come.