Villard Hall, the second-oldest building on the University of Oregon campus, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, and was designated a National Historic Landmark five years later.
The man the building was named for, Henry Villard, could very well be considered a national treasure, and appropriately enough for the namesake of such a historic building, played witness to a number of the events which shaped the United States.
After all, who else can link Abraham Lincoln, the women’s suffrage movement, the NAACP, Thomas Edison, the Northern Pacific Railroad, and the University of Oregon?
Henry Villard was born Ferdinand Heinrich Gustav Hilgard in 1835, in the Kingdom of Bavaria. Hilgard attended a high school in Zweibrücken, but found himself in hot water when he refused to mention the King of Bavaria in a prayer. A supporter of the revolution in Germany, he disagreed with his conservative father over politics and was sent to a military academy in France to learn discipline and obedience.
Instead, Hilgard promptly ran away, moved to America, and changed his name.
Villard covered the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates for the New Yorker Staats-Zeitung, and described Stephen Douglas “a skillful dialectician and debater arguing a wrong and weak cause” and Abraham Lincoln an “indescribably gawky . . . altogether uncomely . . . thoroughly earnest and truthful man, inspired by sound convictions in consonance with the true spirit of American institutions.” After one debate, two farmers picked Lincoln up and carried him away on their shoulders, leading Villard to note, “It really was a ludicrous sight to see the grotesque figure holding frantically to the heads of his supporters, with his legs dangling from their shoulders, and his pantaloons pulled up so as to expose his underwear almost to his knees.”
Villard spent a considerable amount of time with the candidates; one of his first introductions to the future president was when the two sheltered from a storm together in an empty freight car, and struck up a conversation during which Lincoln stated he didn’t believe he would advance further than the United States Senate. According to Villard, Lincoln—one of America’s most respected presidents—had a fondness for bawdy jokes and tall tales, recalling in his memoir, “the coarser the joke, the lower the anecdote, and the more risky the story, the more he enjoyed them, especially if they were of his own invention.”
While Villard never grew to love Lincoln, he certainly grew to respect him, and the two maintained a grudging relationship. Villard later recounted of their evening in the empty train car, “I cherish this accidental recontre as one of my most precious recollections,” and he was the only journalist to accompany Lincoln on the train to his inauguration.
Villard covered the Civil War for the New York Tribune
, and reported on the battles of Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Murfreesboro, among others. Despite having a strong dislike for members of the media, General William T. Sherman came to befriend Villard, and the two would meet every evening to learn about, and discuss, the latest news from the Associated Press
. That said, despite his burgeoning friendship with General Sherman, his experiences during the war made him a confirmed pacifist.
Following the end of the Civil War, Villard married suffragette and fellow pacifist Helen Frances “Fanny” Garrison, the daughter of prominent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. The couple had four children: Helen Elise, Harold Garrison, Oswald Garrison, and Henry Hilgard. Oswald and Fanny were later among the first members and supporters of the NAACP.
In 1870, Villard became ill, and returned to Germany to recover. While there, he became involved in the railroad industry, and after returning to America in 1874, became president of the Oregon Steamship Company and the Oregon and California Railroad. After buying the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, he merged his properties and christened them the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company.
And this is where Thomas Edison comes in.
Villard attended Edison’s 1879 demonstration of his lightbulb in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Wowed by the new technology, Villard requested that Edison install lighting on his new steamship, the Columbia
—the project was the first to use Edison’s bulb commercially.
The partnership was not the first between Villard and Edison, as Villard was behind the merger of the Edison Electric Light Company with Edison Machine Works, forming the Edison General Electric Company. Villard was the president of Edison General Electric Company until J.P. Morgan merged it with the Thompson-Houston Electric Company.
Morgan dropped the “Edison” and “Company” from Villard’s company’s name, and the merged firm went simply by General Electric.
So how, then, did Henry Villard—associate of Abraham Lincoln, William T. Sherman, and Thomas Edison—come to have the University of Oregon’s second-oldest building named after him?
In 1881, the UO was heavily in debt, and was considering closure. Deady Hall, at that point the university’s only building, was for sale. Villard learned of the UO’s problems and stepped in and paid off the debt, setting aside money specifically for library books, lab equipment, scholarships, and faculty salaries. He also created the UO’s first endowment, providing $50,000. His generosity literally enabled the UO to keep its lights on, and helped set the platform for the university it is today, a tier one institution classified as having “highest research activity” by the Carnegie Classifications of Institutions of Higher Education.
In recognition of his generosity, the University of Oregon named its second building Villard Hall, where it is now the home of the comparative literature and theater arts departments.