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The Hill Annex comes down. See photos, video and read the history.

Aug 19, 2008

In just days, a building familiar to generations of Northern students, Hill Annex, will be demolished. For eight decades, the structure served as the university’s source of heat and electricity. Earlier engineering students recall it as a lab where they learned the intricacies of power generation. Most recently, it has housed Northern’s business and security offices and the campus mail room. It was originally erected to meet a critical need for public utilities.

Originally the campus used stoves to heat individual rooms and kerosene lamps for lights. The lamps were cheaper than gas lights, however this arrangement required large amounts of combustible fuel to be stored in the buildings.

One shortcoming of this procedure became apparent on Dec. 23, 1889, at around 6:30 p.m., when the administration building, erected just 10 years earlier, caught fire. A student had decided to dip into the faculty's oil barrel stored in the building's basement. He lit a match to see if his can was filled, blew it out (or so he thought), and left. The resulting blaze was extinguished with the harm largely limited to minor smoke and water damage.

While most of the lighting fixtures were utilitarian, some, like those in the literary society halls, could be spectacular. The Philomathean Society’s hall had a device with 32 lamps, 3,000 glass prisms of different colors and polished brass work. The massive fixture could be raised and lowered to fill or trim the lamps.

At first, heating was also decentralized and provided by stoves in individual rooms. This hazardous and inefficient arrangement was gradually replaced with a hot air furnace for each building. In the early 1890’s a commercial firm, the Ada Water, Heat, Light and Power Company, was organized to provide electric power and hot water for heating. The University was one of the firm’s customers. As the catalog for 1906-07 noted:

“These buildings [on campus] contain commodious rooms, well lighted and ventilated and heated partially by hot air furnaces, partly by the city hot water plant. A new system is, however, about to be installed connecting all the buildings with a common heating plant. At night they are lighted by electricity.”

The actual installation took a few years, but by 1910 the catalog could boast that:

“These buildings contain commodious rooms well lighted and heated by the University’s central steam heating system…. ”

As more buildings were constructed or planned, the original plant’s limitations became apparent. In 1922 a new and larger plant, Hill Annex, was dedicated to the west of Hill building. Like its predecessor, the facility generated steam to run a set of dynamos with the exhaust steam being directed through underground pipes and used for heating.

This system served the University’s needs for four decades, but by spring 1961 more efficient alternatives existed. The central plant was replaced by individual gas-fired heating units in Lehr, Dukes, Hill, Huber and Brown Hall. While no longer needed as a power plant, the building provided much-needed space for the offices of campus security, the mail room, the purchasing department and the central receiving department.

In the 1990’s, when the university’s fiber optic computer network was installed, the power plant made one last contribution. The unused steam mains remained buried under the front campus and all but forgotten. These relics of the era of steam provided an excellent place to run the computer age’s new utility, data.

(Historical information provided by Director of Heterick Memorial Library Paul Logsdon.)

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