At Northwestern, there is only one building with “Deus est lux” (God is light) engraved on its side. It was dedicated on Nov. 23, 1894, and still stands tall to this day – Zwemer Hall.
It stands as a symbol of hope, faith, perseverance, excellence in education, the past, the present and the future of NW. From the first time that it was built in the middle of campus to what it is now, Zwemer has had a couple of improvements to better its use.
In 1924, the building was named after the first principal of Northwestern Classical Academy, Reverend James Zwemer. Before then, it was called Academy Hall. The exterior of the building was built of Mankato rock, pressed brick and Mankato cream stone, which were trimmed from a quarry near Mankato, Minnesota. The interior has maple wood floors, stairs and wainscoting.
Imagine yourself entering Zwemer on the north side, the door by Christy’s Cross. As you enter the wide wood doors and walk up the short flight of steps, you find that you are inside a large hallway. Overhead is a great Roman arch that extends majestically across the hall’s width. A wide stairway leads to the second floor, and in the northwest portion of the hall, there are two doors: the entrance into the Rapelye Library and Reading Rooms, named in honor of Mrs. Cornelius Rapelye, of New York City, who donated money, books and furniture to the library for a number of years.
You walk up the wide stairway toward the second floor. To the right, you see a room called the Latin Room. There are chairs and a large auditorium with stairs leading up to the balcony behind and in front of you. This, ladies and gentlemen, was the Chapel.
As we come back to reality, one may ask, “How did they get their chapel credits?” There was a work-study that was done by a student. They would sit up in the balcony, one on the west side and the other on the east side. Students were to sit in their assigned spots for the whole year. This would help the work-study students mark when a student had made it to chapel, and then they would mark it down, showing that the student was present.
As the number of students increased, as well as the number of programs that NW provided, the higher the demand was for more space. An expansion in the 1990s, where many of the pre-existing rooms changed into office spaces, made it into what it is today.
On March 3, 1975, NW filled out a nomination to have Zwemer in the National Register of Historic Places Inventory, and it was officially included in the registry on May 28, 1975. This act makes Zwemer a protected American historical and archaeological resource.
James Zwemer stated, “It behooves us to dedicate or consecrate this building to God. Let us therefore now set this building apart… We want God to take this building and use it in his plan for mankind, and to consecrate it for the service of man in his kingdom. These stones bear witness to the principles we hold.”
This still holds true to this day. Zwemer still stands as a building that brings us together and reminds us to look up and reflect on how wonderful our God is.