Bygone DePaul: Lewis Center

Bygone DePaul is a series highlighting DePaul’s campus and how it has changed through the years.

Frank Lewis and Comerford O'Malley
l-r: Frank Lewis and Comerford O’Malley.

One of the largest donations ever received by DePaul came in the form of a skyscraper in Chicago’s South Loop. In 1955, President Reverend Comerford O’Malley, C.M. read in a newspaper that the Kimball Building on the corner of Jackson and Wabash was up for sale, and prominent Catholic philanthropist Frank J. Lewis offered to purchase the land and building for the University. The deed to the Kimball Building was officially gifted to DePaul on Oct. 15, 1955, and the building was immediately renamed the Lewis Center to show the Vincentians’ gratitude. On the occasion, Lewis said, “Of various things I have done or hope to do, I believe this is the best.” The Lewis Center was renovated, and shortly after, DePaul’s downtown campus moved there from 64 E. Lake Street in the North Loop.

The Lewis Center offered much more space than 64 E. Lake Street. In 1955 there were six floors of classrooms, six floors of office space, a 500 seat theater on the second floor, three floors for library use (two for the general library and one for the law library), and two floors that could be rented to tenants. The sub-basement of the building was rented to the Fisher Music Company, and the 17th floor housed a men’s barbershop. The building also boasted a cafeteria (the hub of student activity), a faculty and staff dining room, student lounges and a chapel. Students recall the Lewis Center as much nicer and more convenient than previous facilities, though the classrooms were “spartan.” Teachers faced a difficult choice of allowing students to wilt from the heat during the summer due to lack of air conditioning, or opening the windows and being drowned out by the passing el. This was a problem, in fact, that O’Malley and Lewis anticipated, although they said “eventually the elevated structure will come down and this location will be even more desirable.” Their assumption did not prove correct and professors still battle this same question every year.

DePaul’s presence in the South Loop has had an important effect on the neighborhood. Although the South Loop was prosperous when DePaul moved in, a mass-exodus to the suburbs in the seventies and eighties left the area downtrodden. DePaul, however, remained. The generous donation of Frank Lewis changed and revitalized DePaul University’s downtown campus, and through DePaul’s presence in the neighborhood, eventually helped revitalize the South Loop as well.

Contact DePaul’s University Archives for more information.

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