Marquette Wire

Johnston’s Gems

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There was a time when Marquette’s chapel, library and Jesuit residence were all housed under the same roof.

It was a time before there were 11 different colleges featuring 80 different majors and 78 varying minors. In fact, Marquette was still considered a college itself, still too small in enrollment and lacking the proper infrastructure to gain university status. All of that would change on Christmas Day in 1906.

A $110,000 gift from Robert A. Johnston set the wheels in motion for a project that would alter the course of Marquette’s history. The campus, as it is known today, was born.

Robert A. Johnston Hall opened May 13, 1907, cementing Marquette’s presence in the Wisconsin higher education landscape. The construction of this building was so crucial to Marquette College’s future that the Board of Trustees actually proposed renaming the school “Johnston University,” according to a university history book.

The building was an all-encompassing campus center, described as a “hotbed” and the “hub” of Marquette’s campus by the Milwaukee Journal during its infancy.

“(Johnston Hall) is the original university building,” Bill O’Brien, senior advancement knowledge officer, said. “It’s part of the historic core. It’s a handsome building that everybody sees.”

In the early years of Johnston Hall, the building was home to all classes besides those in the medicine and nursing departments. It contained numerous science laboratories and even featured an observatory on the roof of the structure, which was functional until renovations in 1980s.

“I got up in the observatory a couple of times and it was really cool. You could open it up so that you could put the telescope out and you could rotate it,” Dan Johnson, who has been a photographer for Marquette since 1977, said. “The roof of this building had problems; it leaked. And rather than fix the leak … they sledgehammered it down and just sealed it over. That was a shame that they had lost a cool part of the building.”

“Those must have been fascinating days,” Jon Pray, who worked in the Instructional Media Center at Marquette from 1978 to 2016, said. “We’d go up there and stick out our heads in the hole up there they left in the roof and watch the thunderstorms roll … The old Jesuits who lived on the fifth floor must have had quite a show up there.”

In the south wing of the fifth floor below the observatory, Jesuits would roam through their living quarters. Johnston Hall housed upwards of 20 Jesuits from its completion all the way until 1973. Remnants of these rooms are visible in the structure of the offices currently on the fifth floor.

“It was like two separate buildings,” Rev. Tom Caldwell, a Jesuit who ate his meals in the building’s basement from 1965 to 1973, said. “It was like living in an attic.”

As campus continued to expand, different colleges would call Johnston Hall home. The science department trickled out of the building after the creation of the science building, now known as Marquette Hall, in 1924. The economic and business departments followed suit. After significant expansion in the 1960s and 1970s, the College of Journalism returned to Johnston Hall in 1975. This was accompanied by $1.8 million in renovations.

“What happened when they remodeled the building, it was sort of like the Oklahoma land rush where everybody lined up on a line with their wagons, and they said, go get your territory,” Johnson said. “I think that they had already decided that the second floor, because of where the old library was, was where the TV studio should be, because it was a large room. The rest of the floors were sort of up for grabs.”

“What they had done in ’75 was mostly energy conservation and bad, bad decorating,” Pray said. “(The wallpaper) was either pumpkin orange and/or avocado green, often side by side. It was just horrific.”

As the 20th century closed out, the College of Journalism made itself comfortable in Johnston Hall. The radio station, which had resided in the building since 1922, accompanied a new television studio and the other forms of student media including the Marquette Tribune and the Marquette Journal. Additionally, the Instructional Media Center, which helps provide technical support for the college and university, came to fruition.

In 1986, Johnston Hall earned status on the National Registrar of Historic Places for being the oldest building on campus.

Continuous stability in the college led to further improvements in the building. In 2000, the Wakerly Media Lab opened on the first floor, offering $78,000 in upgrades. Five years later, Bill and Mary Diederich donated $28 million to the College of Communication, the largest individual gift in the college’s history. These gifts propelled the building into the modern era, ushering in improvements across the board space-wise and technology-wise.

“(The Diederich donation) is enormous for the future of the college because there’s a million and a quarter dollars coming in from the endowment each year,” Bill O’Brien said. “It’s enabled all kinds of things to happen.”

Today, more renovations are taking place on the second floor to improve the infrastructure available to students. A new television studio space, a green screen studio, a data visualization lab and a new student newsroom are keeping the building on the cutting edge of technology.

Even after 110 years, the building affectionately known as “Old Johnston” is still an iconic part of Marquette’s campus. It continues to be a place for learning, housing classes, laboratories and facilities for the 942 students enrolled in the Diederich College of Communication.

“When the university promotes itself, a lot of time they’ll include Gesu church and some of the core buildings,” Johnson  said. “This is a historic building. You have Johnston and Marquette Hall and you always see a picture of the three of those buildings and they sort of represent Marquette”

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