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  • Writer's pictureLibby Cierzniak

Happy Birthday, Butler!

Updated: Jan 16, 2020

170 years ago today - on January 15, 1850 - the Indiana General Assembly approved the charter for a new school that would become the second university in the nation to accept women on an equal basis with men.

The charter was drafted by Ovid Butler, a retired lawyer and fervent abolitionist who envisioned an institution of higher learning committed to racial and gender equality and free from the "pernicious influence of slavery." In 1877, Northwestern Christian University was renamed Butler University in honor of its founder.

North Western Christian University opened in 1855 on a 25-acre site donated by Butler at College and Home Avenue (now 13th Street). Home Avenue got its name from Forest Home, the "country" estate that Butler built in 1840 at the corner of Park and 13th.

There, Butler and a group of like-minded men gathered in the parlor to take Butler's radical ideas for the fledgling university from pen and paper to bricks and mortar.

Forest Home still stands in the Old Northside Historic District. In 2007, a historic marker was placed on the grounds to acknowledge Ovid Butler's accomplishments.

Sadly, the original building for the college that bore his name is long gone. After North Western Christian University relocated to a larger space in Irvington in the 1870s, the building was used as an orphanage and later a medical school before it was demolished in 1910 to make way for housing.

Other vestiges of Butler University's earliest days can still be found in the Old Northside, however, including a magnificent home built in the 1870s by the widower of Demia Butler, Ovid Butler's daughter and the first female to graduate from the university's full four-year classical studies program. After Demia Butler died in 1867 at the age of 25, her father endowed a chair of English literature at the college her name.

A fine Italianate built by Samuel Merrill, Jr. on land that he co-owned with his sister, Catharine Merrill also has a Butler connection. Catharine Merrill was a distinguished scholar who was only the second woman in the U.S. to be appointed as a college faculty professor. She held the Demia Butler Chair. Both homes had fallen into disrepair by the 1970s but have been beautifully restored.

Of course, the most prominent reminder of Butler University's first home is also the most obvious - College Avenue.

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