One of the earliest buildings at Northwestern University, circa 1874. Photo courtesy of Northwestern University archives

What makes Evanston Evanston?
Arguably, the founding of a small University in 1851 along the lakefront just north of Chicago made Evanston. What is now one of the country’s premier national universities for both undergraduate and graduate education began as a mere vision by nine Chicago Methodists. The plan was to build an institution that would provide an education for the young men of Chicago and the Northwest Territory. The town that sprang up around the school was named for one of the University’s founders, John Evans, and incorporated in 1863.

As Evanston grew, the University grew from a small Methodist school into the world-renowned center for learning it is today. Linked from the very beginning, Evanston and Northwestern University continue to partner, although not without occasional tensions, to make the community what it
is today.

Modest Beginnings

Northwestern’s history began on May 30, 1850, when a group of nine ambitious men met in a law office in Chicago to discuss establishing an institution of higher education. A resolution passed at one of the earliest board meetings “…to make it a university of the highest order of excellence, complete in all of its parts …” was indeed ambitious, as the University at the time had no students, no faculty and no money.

The founders received a charter in 1851 and Northwestern officially opened its doors in the fall of 1855. The first entering class consisted of a mere ten students and by graduation had dwindled to five.

“It was really small potatoes and a modest undertaking from the get-go,” says University archivist Kevin Leonard. “But these men were very plucky and fortunate to associate themselves with major benefactors who helped carry the University through the first decades.”

One such benefactor was John Evans. His success as the former head of the obstetrics department at Rush Medical College, his real estate acumen and his background as a consolidator of railroads provided him with an abundance of money to support the plan.

The founding of the University has shaped the history of the City of Evanston in many ways. For example, when Dr. Evans and the trustees of Northwestern ultimately selected Evanston (called Ridgeville at the time) as the University’s location, they not only secured the land for the campus but also bought a large piece of property along the periphery of what would become the campus. They plotted the street grid in the central part of Evanston, reserving a portion of the land they figured they would need to build the University, then sold or leased the lots using the money earned to help fund the young institution.

“Northwestern’s initial land holdings worked to plat out the village and were central to the formation of this town,” says Mr. Leonard. “There were very few people living in Ridgeville at the time, but these men created development.”

The University also might have helped to shape the character of the City. While the school was non-sectarian from the beginning, the students, faculty and administrators were heavily Methodist. The moral conviction of the founders was such that an early amendment to the charter of the University forbade the sale and manufacturing of alcohol within four miles of the school. That act established the City as a temperance town – the abuse of alcohol being a major social concern of the Methodists at the time.

“Evanston became a haven for like-minded people to live,” says Mr. Leonard. “And it helped shape the character of this town for a great length of time.”

University Offers Rich Culture

Today’s Northwestern University has an outstanding reputation and boasts nationally ranked professional programs. As a research university, Northwestern conducts research that may have profound implications for the future.

With a combined student population of approximately 16,000 graduate and undergraduate students and nearly 2,500 full-time faculty members, the University, located on 240 acres of Evanston land, is undeniably a large part of what makes Evanston Evanston. 

“This amazing University and all it has to offer is right here in our very own backyard,” exclaims Lucile Krasnow, Northwestern’s special assistant for community relations and an Evanston resident for the past 31 years.

Residents can take advantage of the University’s many unique opportunities,
from attending a Big Ten game at one of the University’s athletic stadiums to hearing a concert by internationally renowned musicians at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, to viewing a play showcasing students from Northwestern’s top-rated theater department.

Evanstonians can also choose from an abundance of academic opportunities. Anyone can enroll in single courses or certificate and degree programs at the School of Continuing Studies, take a Norris University Center mini-course just for fun, or be challenged by classes offered through the Osher Institute for Lifelong Learning.

A Unique Partnership

As the City and University have grown and evolved together over the past 150 years together, they have not done so without some friction.

“Every major University has incredible town tensions,” says Ms. Krasnow. “It’s logical, it’s understandable and it happens everywhere, but in my opinion, the positives far outweigh the negatives.”

Much of the tension in recent years has stemmed from the fact that the University is not required to pay property taxes. Every state provides property tax exemptions for non-profit organizations, including private schools, universities and religious organizations.

“The University’s large economic impact on the City often goes unnoticed,” says Ms. Krasnow.

Northwestern is not only Evanston’s largest employer, with more that 5,000 employees, says Ms. Krasnow, but is also one of its largest buyers of goods and services. She goes on to say millions of dollars are spent annually at Evanston stores, restaurants, hotels and other businesses by students, faculty, staff and visitors, not to mention the large sum of money students and employees pay local landlords in rent.

In 2005 an economic impact study conducted by an outside consultant determined that Northwestern’s presence has a total economic impact on Evanston of $160 million a year. The study can be downloaded at

Ms. Krasnow also notes how the many students and faculty who fan out into the community working to make a difference have a significant impact on the City.

  1. “We have thousands of students going out into the town and volunteering at schools, community centers and other non-profits,” says Ms. Krasnow. “Whether they are doing it for coursework, a work study program or just as good citizens, they are making a positive impact on our City.”           

University professors often partner with the community, too. One example is Project Excite, a program that addresses a learning gap among students in Evanston.  Starting in third grade, promising District 65 students take advantage of enrichment activities, mentoring and extra classes offered through the University that prepare them for advanced-level courses at Evanston Township High School.

As a resident of Evanston as well as an employee of the University, Ms. Krasnow says it is an honor to be a part of both. 

“When you realize the breadth and width of all that is here, it is truly astounding,” says Ms. Krasnow. “The University is very much the fabric of our community.”

More information about Northwestern University is available at Campus events can be found at the campus events calendar, Plan-It Purple,

Anne Bodine

Anne Bodine, Community News Editor, has been a part of The Evanston RoundTable since 2008 as a reporter covering businesses and institutions; arts and entertainment; and health and wellness. More recently,...