The Lakefill

The James Roscoe Miller Campus (more commonly known as the “Lakefill”) was constructed between 1962 and 1964. Its primary purpose was to provide land for expansion of the University by extending the eastern edge of the campus 1,000 feet into Lake Michigan. The project would increase the University’s educational land holdings from 85 to 159 acres and would reorient the entire campus towards the lake. Although adventurous, lakefill construction was not a new idea in 1962. Plans for expanding into the lake had been made by several University presidents, including Henry Wade Rogers in 1893 and Walter Dill Scott in the 1930s. Rogers’ plans included using the new land for recreational purposes such as a polo field and a gymnasium. Scott’s program was made in conjunction with the city of Chicago’s plan to extend Lake Shore Drive north to Evanston and included lakefront lagoons, a yacht harbor and a highway.

In the late 1950s, it became evident that the success of the University’s mission was tied to its ability to expand its campus, and a new plan for extending the existing campus into Lake Michigan was endorsed by University President J. Roscoe Miller. The plan called for Northwestern to purchase 152 acres of lake bottom from the State of Illinois and to fill in part of the acreage to create an additional seventy-four acres of land for the University to build on.

From the beginning, the advantages of expanding the campus into Lake Michigan, rather than moving further west into Evanston or building larger structures on the campus’ remaining land, were clear. The lakefill plan would allow the University to grow without displacing city residents from their homes west of the University or removing more property from the city’s tax roles. It would also allow the existing campus to retain open space. In addition, the lake-bottom land the University would be acquiring was only nine feet under water in most places and thus could be easily and inexpensively filled, compared with cost of acquiring land west of campus.

In 1960, after receiving approval from the Board of Trustees, the University hired the architecture firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill to draw up plans and undertake a feasibility study. Once this work was completed, the University made a formal announcement of its plans in October of 1960. Before work could be started, however, the University had to gain the approval of the City of Evanston, Cook County, the State of Illinois, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Citizens of Evanston were generally in favor of the plan, as it allowed for University growth with little negative impact on the city. The City gave the University its final approval in March, 1961. After an extensive lobbying effort by the University, the State House and Senate voted in favor of a bill allowing the sale of the underwater property for $100 an acre. Governor Otto J. Kerner (Law, 1934) signed the bill on May 26, 1961. Once the purchase was completed, the University sought the approval of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps held public hearings and commissioned studies of the project, mostly concerned with the issue of the continued navigation of the lake’s waters. The Corps issued a permit for construction on September 6, 1961 and work commenced in July, 1962.

The initial stage involved construction of a seawall around the perimeter of the area to be filled in. Starting at a point 1200 feet from the original lakeshore, the wall was 2800 feet long. It was ninety-six feet wide at its base, tapering to eight feet at its top and rose ten feet above the water level. It was constructed of limestone rocks and fill from quarries in Illinois and Indiana. Next, more than two million cubic yards of sand were deposited on the site, to be covered with a two-foot layer of clay. It was during this stage that a controversy arose. Unknown to University officials, the contractors for the project were using sand from a site near Indiana Dunes State Park that activists wished to preserve as part of a new national park. The Save the Dunes Council appealed to the University to void its agreement with the contractors and find another source of sand for the lakefill. University officials felt they had done nothing wrong, and knew that they could not legally back out of their contracts. After it became clear that the sand was being taken from land near two steel mills and a new deep-water port, thus making it unlikely that it would be included in the proposed park, the University let the work continue as planned.

The entire project cost 6.5 million dollars and took more than two years, as work had to be halted during winters and periods of poor weather. Formal dedication ceremonies for the new lakefill campus were held on October 7, 1964 on the roof of the Vogelback Computer Center, the first building constructed on the lakefill. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson (Law, 1926) was the keynote speaker. John G. Searle spoke on behalf of the Board of Trustees and announced that the campus would be named for University President James Roscoe Miller.

In 1968, an additional ten acres of land was filled in on the southern edge of the lakefill, creating space for a permanent parking garage. Bike paths, improved lighting, visitor parking, and north entrance improvements were completed in 1974.

Aerial View: During Lakefill Construction, 1963
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Quick Facts

Date: 1964

Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

Named for: J. Roscoe Miller