Office of Ceremonies

The Four Columns

The columns that form the backdrop for our stage at convocation and commencement hold special meaning for the University of Washington.

The four columns on the front of the original Territorial University

Territorial University with flag flying, showing west and south sides of building. (Click on photo to enlarge.)University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections

The University is, in many ways, a monument to the vision of two of Seattle’s early pioneers, Arthur A. Denny and the Reverend Daniel Bagley, after whom Denny and Bagley Halls are named. It was largely due to their efforts that the University’s first building was constructed in 1861 at the corner of what is now 4th and University Street in downtown Seattle. The building was a stately two-story structure with a grand entrance – a portico that featured four Ionic columns. Washington Territorial University (statehood was still 28 years away) officially opened on September 16, 1861. Classes began on November 4. Asa Shinn Mercer was the President and initially the only instructor. Clarence Bagley, Daniel Bagley’s son, was the first student. The non-native population of King County was about 300.* The Civil War had just entered its sixth month.

In 1908, when the original site was about to be razed, Edmond S. Meany, head of the History Department and one of the University’s first graduates, sought to save the old building by having it moved to the new campus. Alas, only the hand-fluted cedar columns escaped demolition. They were erected, in 1911, very near the intersection of King and Pierce Lanes in the Quad. Meany and his colleague Herbert T. Condon named them Loyalty, Industry, Faith, and Efficiency, or “LIFE.”

Three 1920's women dance in Sylvan Grove in front of the Four Columns

Three dancers celebrate the restored columns in 1922 at Sylvan Theater. (Click on photo to enlarge.)University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections

But their journey was not yet over. By 1920 the Quad was bordered by Raitt Hall (built in 1916) and the two buildings (Commerce Hall, 1917; Philosophy Hall, 1920) that now form Savery Hall, with a fourth building, Miller Hall (1922), on the horizon. All of these structures reflected a new University design plan that dictated collegiate Gothic architecture for upper campus buildings. It was becoming increasingly apparent that the Greek columns were oddly out of place (not to mention time) surrounded by the Quad’s new collegiate Gothic buildings.

To resolve the conflict, Carl F. Gould, then head of the architecture department and unofficial campus architect, organized a student design competition for the relocation of the columns. Sophomore Marshall W. Gill, son of Seattle Mayor Hiram Gill, won first prize for his design incorporating the columns into a Sylvan Theater. In the spring of 1921, under the watchful eyes of an alumni committee from the Class of 1911, the columns finally found a permanent home in Sylvan Grove.

UW Freshmen attend an orientation session in front of the Four Columns.

The Four Columns today, as seen during a Freshman Advising Orientation session held in Sylvan Grove. (Click on photo to enlarge.)Katherine B. Turner / UW Admissions

In 2008 Facilities Services once again repaired the columns (PowerPoint). The work was funded by contributions from the Class of 1956.

The four columns speak eloquently of our beginnings and early history as a University and of the dedication of a small group of settlers to the values of higher education. They remind us that it is our duty to preserve the priceless legacy of all those who have come before us for future generations.

*Between 1770 and 1850, diseases brought by non-native explorers and settlers – smallpox, measles, influenza, and others – had reduced the native population of Western Washington from 37,000 to 9,000The indigenous people of the Duwamish tribe numbered about 250 in 1854. A smallpox epidemic in 1862 killed approximately half of the remaining Western Washington natives and most likely impacted the Duwamish as well. A large reservation promised to the Duwamish as part of an 1855 treaty that was separate from the Treaty of Point Elliot was never provided.

Professor Emeritus of Architecture and Urban Planning, Norman J. Johnston, is gratefully acknowledged for his wonderful history of the UW campus, The Fountain & the Mountain, from which much of this information is taken. David Rash, of Columns magazine, is also acknowledged for his report on the 1920 design competition.