April 14, 2014

Morrison bookcase brings piece of history back to Wichita State

Long ago, it was nicknamed the “Morrison Monster.”

Long ago, it was nicknamed the “Morrison Monster.”

It was big, bulky, weighed several hundred pounds and symbolized one of Nathan Morrison’s greatest achievements – the creation of a college library in Wichita.

After Morrison died in 1907 and his widow moved from Wichita in 1924, the bookcase traveled the nation as it was passed down from one Morrison family member to another. From Wichita to Ohio to Washington, D.C., then back to Ohio. From there on to California, New Jersey, back to California and then to New York, Omaha, Bethesda, Md., and on to Columbia, S.C.

Last year, the Morrison family decided to donate the “Morrison Monster” to the college that originated it.

The ornate bookcase is now at Wichita State University on the second floor of Morrison Hall outside the office of Ted Ayres, the university’s vice president and general counsel.

Morrison was the first president of Fairmount College, which evolved into Wichita State University.

The bookcase was a gift to him from patrons. His great-grandchildren returned it to the university.

According to Ayres, the bookcase was specially made for Nathan Morrison sometime between 1895, when he arrived in Wichita, and 1907, when he died.

His widow, Miranda Capon Morrison, moved from Wichita in 1924, taking the bookcase with her.

“I can’t express in words how pleased and excited I am that the Morrison family saw fit to have this piece come back to Wichita,” Ayres said. “I can’t express how important it is – for this beautiful piece to return to Wichita and find a location for it in the building named after president Morrison. It symbolizes the journey of who we are as a university, where we have been and where we want to go as a university.”

In the late 19th century, a collection of books meant the rough and rowdy cowtown was on its way to becoming civilized. The Morrison Library was one of the first libraries in Wichita.

When Nathan Morrison arrived in Wichita in 1895, he made it a priority to build a library for Fairmount College – and make it a focal point of the college.

Fairmount had collected many of its books through private donations. A flier for books, distributed in 1895 and published in a history of Fairmount College by John Rydjord, read: “20,000 books, magazines and pamphlets are desired at once for the Fairmount College Library. This appeal is made to you. Any book, old or new, bound or unbound, in any language or on any subject, will be most thankfully received; because it will be sure to fit into a place in the large reference library which you are asked to assist in building up. Over 1,200 volumes and pamphlets have already been gathered in since the first of the year. Please look up at once what you can spare from your library and attic and notify the librarian, who will call or send for your contributions. Very respectfully, Paul Roulet, library.”

In 1906, Fairmount College received a $40,000 grant from the Carnegie Foundation for a library, one of nearly five dozen Carnegie-funded libraries built in Kansas. Carnegie, a steel magnate, was one of the most famous American philanthropists of the late 19th century.

Morrison died just after midnight on April 12, 1907, the day after the groundbreaking for the college library.

The library was finished and dedicated in 1909. Though the library was known as the Carnegie Library for a time, it was renamed the Morrison Library in 1911.

The original Morrison Library building was converted into the music and art department in 1939 after the new Morrison Library was built on the north campus of Wichita University. In 1964, that newer building was converted into classrooms, and Ablah Library was built.

Later, the original Morrison building burned and was razed, making room for the McKnight Art Center and Ulrich Galleries.

Miranda Morrison Hagen and her brother James Aylwin Morrison, the great-grandchildren of Nathan, donated the bookcase to WSU.

“My father died seven years ago. My brother lives in China,” Hagen said. “We had divided things up in terms of value – sentimental and monetary. The bookcase had been in storage, and as my brother and I talked, we decided we couldn’t take care of everything.”

Hagen’s mother nicknamed the 6-by-4-foot bookcase the “Morrison Monster.” Even cleaning ladies called it that as they dusted, she said.

According to Hagen, “It required the strength of multiple movers to lift it as well as gentle care so as not to damage its beautiful antique glass. ... To every descendant of Nathan Morrison, the bookcase has represented a connection to him and the college he helped to create. It is only fitting that it should find its way back to the place which was once called Fairmount College.”

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