Lincoln wrangles over fate of historic buildings

Azikiwe-Nkrumah Hall was built in 1865 and is named for the first presidents of two African nations. The school has decided to consult with the National Trust for Historic Preservation on the buildings' future.
Azikiwe-Nkrumah Hall was built in 1865 and is named for the first presidents of two African nations. The school has decided to consult with the National Trust for Historic Preservation on the buildings' future.
Posted: June 26, 2014

Brick buildings, some dating back to the 1800s, line the main street of the campus of Lincoln University, a school that has produced a Supreme Court justice, a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, and two presidents of African nations.

For a group of alumni, those buildings are historic emblems of the first degree-granting African American institution in the nation.

For the school's administration, they are structures that may pose a financial hardship during tough budgetary times.

That is the core of a clash between the college administration and an alumni group formed to lobby for preservation of the buildings.

The university is considering demolishing four of its buildings constructed between 1865 and 1891, according to the school's "Strategic Plan Report, 2013-18," and its "Universal Campus Master Plan."

The 20-member alumni group, called the Lincoln University Heritage Initiative, is proposing that a historic district be designated on the 422-acre campus. The district would be made up of 15 buildings - the four older buildings and 11 others built between 1866 and 1931.

"We have plans for an economically viable themed historic district with restaurants, shops, and exhibits that will educate the public about the importance of Lincoln," said Carol Black, a 1967 graduate and president of the alumni group's board of directors.

Striking turnaround

The school's consideration of the buildings' future is a product of the difficult decisions the university must make "about where to invest its limited financial resources," said Kimberly A. Lloyd, chair of the school's board of trustees, in a statement released Thursday.

No final decision has been made, the statement said. The university has initiated discussions with the National Trust for Historic Preservation about obtaining an assessment of the campus before deciding the buildings' fate, the statement said.

That is a turnaround from just two weeks ago, when Black said she was told by Valerie Harrison, the school's general counsel, that Lincoln had decided to demolish Azikiwe-Nkrumah Hall, the oldest building on campus.

The saga began at an alumni meeting last year when Robert Jennings, Lincoln's president, mentioned demolishing Azikiwe-Nkrumah Hall to erect a new welcome center, Black said.

The hall, built in 1865, serves as the school's security headquarters. It is named in honor of Lincoln graduates Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first president of Nigeria after independence, and Kwame Nkrumah, first president of Ghana.

The alumni meeting propelled the group into action. Members began gathering documents, distributing petitions, and led a tour of the university for representatives of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which makes decisions about historic designations.

Monuments to history

In 1985, Lincoln was deemed eligible for a historic district that would include the 15 buildings, according to a 1997 letter written by Dan G. Deibler, then chief of the commission's preservation services.

But the commission has no record of a National Register nomination for Lincoln University, Howard Pollman, a spokesman for the agency, said in an e-mail.

The plan for a "rebuilt" Azikiwe-Nkrumah Hall is discussed in an article published April 21 in the Lincolnian, a school publication. Jennings refers to the new hall as a "gorgeous building" that would be ready for occupation by November 2016, the article said.

The building had been deemed so expensive to repair that the cost would exceed the price of erecting a new building.

On June 6, members of the university's board and administration met with the alumni group that offered a 90-minute presentation on the proposed historic district, Black said.

Four days later, Black talked with Harrison, who said the demolition of Azikiwe-Nkrumah Hall would go forward. On Thursday, Lloyd released the statement that the school planned to consult with the National Trust.

Other buildings listed as candidates for demolition include Cresson Hall (1870), Houston Hall (1881), and Bond House (1891), according to university plans.

Cresson Hall is described as a building with structural and environmental issues so severe that it should be demolished. Houston Hall, which is empty, is called unsafe.

Several other buildings erected after 1930 are also candidates for demolition.

Robert Ingram, a 1976 graduate, calls the structures monuments to the history of a university that has educated the likes of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, and thousands of others.

The buildings are too important to be torn down, said Ingram, a Baltimore publisher and vice president of the alumni group.

"These are the oldest buildings at the oldest historically black college or university," Ingram, said. "The Harvards and Browns would never talk about tearing down their oldest buildings. What makes us any different?"


kholmes@phillynews.com610-313-8211

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