The New Washington University

It may be difficult to imagine the joy and excitement of the earliest professors, students, and board members when Washington University was founded in 1853. When the university moved in 1905 from the first downtown campus in the city of St. Louis to its current location near Forest Park, that enthusiasm and school pride from fifty years before was revitalized.  Many faculty members called the school “The New Washington University,” to emphasize the new transition the institution was going through.

In the 1905 Washington University Bulletin, Mr. Walter R. Smith asked:

“What was the basis of all this hope and patience, this joy and enthusiasm? What is meant by the term “The New Washington University?” Two essentials of a modern university, in distinction from the traditional College, are equipment and spirit.”


(Brookings Hall, 1902)

And indeed, equipment and spirit were in no shortage at the time.  There were 11 new Tudor-Gothic buildings made of Missouri Red granite and grey limestone, a new athletic field, and a new gymnasium on 113 acres of land. Student life became more unified, and fraternities, clubs, and sports became more popular. Science laboratories were installed and the library was enhanced. Certainly, a new era had begun.

Busch_Hall_ChemistryLab(Busch Hall science lab, early 1900s)

However, not everyone was a fan of the school’s new nickname.  This is what Miss Lilly Rose Ernst had to say about the trend in her 1905 Commencement Speech:

“To begin with I want to register a protest against a phrase. Several times in the last year I have heard the phrase ‘the new Washington University.’ This is not a new university- it is our good old school set in a new physical environment; that is all. Let them add all the development possible, add all the modern methods, customs and embellishments, but hold fast to what the school has stood for from the first- simplicity, steadfast and honest work, democracy of spirit, the cult of the fair and square. If they have these in this gorgeous new home, we have our old University here; if they do not, I, for one, shall be quite willing to give this school a new name.”


A very interesting dichotomy is brought up in these passages. Yes, time goes on and with time comes change. However, I think that Miss Ernst does something wonderful by protesting the new phrase. She wants to remind everyone of where they came from and how the school started. You can’t erase the past, and the past should not be forgotten. As WashU continues to change with time, we need to remember Miss Ernst. We need to recognize our shortcomings, celebrate our successes, and continue working towards the kind of school we want to be a part of.

For more information about the history of commencement ceremonies at WashU, click here:


This post is part of an occasional series, marking the 110 year anniversary of the Danforth Campus’ first use for academic programs, in 1904-05.  Read more about the dedication events and first commencement ceremony, June 1905, in the Alumni Bulletin available in full text on-line.

About the author

Miranda Rectenwald is Curator of Local History, Washington University Special Collections. More info.