As they walked along creaky wooden planks toward the imposing brick building tucked neatly behind a grove of oak trees on the far northern reaches of Davenport, the young students-all men-took in the towering magnificence for the first time.
Leaves rustled beneath their feet as the students drew closer. They eventually ascended the stairway to the second story, the primary entrance of what would be known as Ambrose Hall. At the time, it must have seemed massive, this new place for learning. Yet one can't help but imagine that it immediately felt like home.
For in this place, a foundation had been laid, a building had taken root, and an institution had staked its claim.
When the Most Rev. Henry Cosgrove first envisioned a home for a Catholic academy in Davenport, a physical place that might "rear its turrets to the sky," as he told The Catholic Messenger in 1885, he pictured it on a piece of land near Eighth and Ripley Street-across the street from what now is Palmer College of Chiropractic.
Certainly, the St. Ambrose of today—and perhaps even the entire landscape of the Gold Coast Neighborhood of Davenport—might have been different had the bishop initially gotten his way.
"Would it have made an economic and social difference for the city?" asked Rev. George McDaniel '66, professor emeritus of history. Looking down upon our sentry oaks from his third-floor Ambrose Hall apartment, he ultimately decided, "It's one of those things we'll never really know."
If anyone would know, it would be Fr. McDaniel. He wrote the definitive history of St. Ambrose University, A Great and Lasting Beginning, to commemorate the institution's sesquicentennial in 2007.
Reaching deep into our history, Fr. McDaniel discovered that everyone around Cosgrove was interested in another location-an open space noted for a still young grove of oak trees north of Locust Street and east of Gaines. That location for an academic institution was called into question because, as Cosgrove worried, it was too far for students to travel to and from each day. Yet he set aside his reservations, and with great zeal and foresight moved quickly to make his dream-and the dream of the late Bishop John McMullen-our reality.
"Noel's Grove did have its appeal, namely that its location out in the ‘country' would keep students away from the temptations of the city," Fr. McDaniel said.
Victor Huot, a Frenchman who came to the United States in 1842, was immediately hired by Cosgrove to design Ambrose Hall. Known as a respected builder and architect of homes for some of Davenport's most prominent families, as well as the then-named Mercy Hospital, Huot's first plans for Ambrose Hall weren't accepted.
"This design is too small," one can hear Cosgrove saying. "Try again."
Huot returned with renderings that brought Cosgrove's vision to life: A four-story brick building, complete with a mansard roof and a central tower, with provisions for additional wings that could be added as they were needed.
The "expandable building" was everything Cosgrove had hoped for and more. Classrooms, offices, storage rooms, a library, a study hall. Even a laundry room. It was a building ahead of its time. The opportunity for expansion that Cosgrove so desired was a mere, and somewhat ironic, foreshadowing of the future, said Fr. McDaniel.
The new building opened to 55 students in November 1885-three years after St. Ambrose Seminary had found its modest beginning in two rooms within the schoolhouse at St. Marguerite's Cathedral in central Davenport and two years after college founder McMullen had died.
The top two floors were left unfinished due to financing issues. Immediately, students began attending classes in the building, which provided the space and experience that Cosgrove had imagined, but it placed a financial strain on the Diocese of Davenport. Enrollment didn't immediately increase as a result of the new building, as had been anticipated. Cosgrove believed it was because the institution wasn't accepting boarding students.
Remember, in the 1880s, Noel's Grove was anything but easy to get to in Davenport-hardly the bustling city center St. Ambrose anchors today.
The two upper floors of Ambrose Hall were completed in 1887, allowing the academy to take on boarding students. By 1891, only six years after opening the building, talks of a renovation abounded.
This would begin a busy history of additions and renovations for Ambrose Hall-five additions, and renovations too numerous to count. Classrooms became offices, then residences and laundry rooms, only to once again return to classrooms.
"The period between 1915 and 1916 was an important part of St. Ambrose's history," noted Fr. McDaniel. Original plans called for the academic portion of the college to be housed in yet another addition to Ambrose Hall, he said. Instead, then-president Rev. William Hannon decided that the college proper would be better located in a separate building.
And so, LeClaire Hall came into focus. "For the first time St. Ambrose would be more than just Ambrose Hall-it would become a much bigger place, and attention would turn to new buildings," Fr. McDaniel said.
In 1976, a rejuvenation of Ambrose Hall began, giving the building's façade much-needed attention to restore it to its original glory. Windows were replaced, brick and stone were removed and refurbished and the third-floor chapel was renovated into a boardroom that would "continue the process of nurturing young minds with the eternal truth" that had been taught when it was a chapel, according to Msgr. Cletus Madsen, '28, a St. Ambrose trustee and former student chaplain.
Also of significance in 1976, Fr. McDaniel helped earn the building a designation on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Ambrose Hall of today might best be described as a hodge-podge of charm and character, with its maze of winding, never-ending hallways from the admissions office to the president's office.
Yet what has endured is Cosgrove's initial vision: A centerpiece building that can expand and adapt to the ever-changing needs of the institution.
"Which is not unlike the Ambrose of today," said Fr. McDaniel. "In many ways, Ambrose Hall is testament to the spirit of Bishop Cosgrove. It's been a building-a place-that, when we needed something about it changed to use it better, it adapted. It adjusted to suit our needs. In 128 years, there's never been a grand plan for the entire building."
Fr. McDaniel, who has lived in the building for more than 40 years, is pleased with the renovation plans, even though it means he'll be living in a construction zone.
"This building is our roots. Our heritage. It is where we began. I hate to use the word iconic-but that is what it is," he said. "How many thousand cars go down Locust Street every day and instantly know who we are?
"It will be fun to watch. And frankly... it's more than about time," he added, chuckling as he acknowledged the historian in him.
When the cornerstone to Ambrose Hall was laid, a young student wrote that upon completion of the building there would "gather within its walls a larger number of students than before, wherein heart and will working in a happy unison will generate true wisdom into good. Our hopes for the next year are of the highest order. With a new and commodious institution, we can predict a proud and successful year."
How right that student was. What was once a single building towering above the young oak trees of Noel's Grove has now become the core, perhaps the soul, of a great and lasting Catholic, liberal arts university that stands tall, proud and mighty today.
Special thanks to Rev. George McDaniel for generously sharing his research and writing in A Great and Lasting Beginning, which is the primary source for this article.