In 1821, an Act of Congress established a school called Columbian College on College Hill for “the education of Gospel Ministers.”
The small campus was bounded by Columbia Rd., 14th St. and Boundary Rd. (Florida Ave.). on the hill which eventually became known as Meridian Hill. The school suffered through some rocky times during the Civil War, but by 1873, the school had moved to a location close to the White House and its old neighborhood on the hill became Columbia Heights.
In 1904, the ambitious eighth president of the university, Charles Needham, was pushing to elevate the school to national prominence. He struck up a deal with the George Washington Memorial Association to rename the school after the country’s first President, in return for $500,000 to fund an ambitious new campus near the National Mall.
The association was ultimately unable to raise the funds and the initial real estate acquisitions needed to be divested. The school retreated to a more modest location in Foggy Bottom, and has remained in that neighborhood ever since.
Unfortunately, the grand plans of Mr. Needham and his trustees didn’t pay off, but the school is far from hurting with regards to national prestige — and accompanying tuition money — despite their recent troubles regarding their official U.S. News ranking.
We wanted to dig up some more details on the renaming of the school, and found a few interesting articles to share from 1904. Below is one from the Washington Post on September 2nd, 1904.
What was Columbian University is now the George Washington University. In compliance with an act of Congress and plans adopted by the board of trustees of the Columbian University, the new name was assumed yesterday morning. With a name memorializing the Father of His Country, the institution will broaden its scope to the end that there may be brought into reality the desire of Washington to have established here a national University.
President Needham, through whose efforts more than any one else numerous difficulties were overcome and the policy of the university widened, issued yesterday with some feeling of gratification an official announcement of the change in name. It reads:
Columbian University, organized under a special charter granted by the Congress of the United States of America February 9, 1821, has, by virtue of a special act of Congress approved January 29, 1904, changed its name to the George Washington University, by which name, under its national charter, the university will continue to carry on its work of higher education in the city of Washington, in the District of Columbia.
CHARLES WILLISNEEDHAM, LL. D.,
September 1, 1904 President.
The article continues and mentions that the first academic year as George Washington University will begin on September 28th, 1904.
Another article from June 9th, 1904, details the evening when the name was changed by a vote of the trustees.
Columbian University trustees, by unanimous vote, yesterday afternoon, decided to change the name of that institution to George Washington University, and thus avail themselves of the offer of a handsome administration building from the George Washington Memorial Association. It is expected the change will take effect on September 1.
The trustees voted to have the original charter of Columbian University, granted in 1821, changed to that of George Washington University, and in order to preserve the name “Columbian” a new organization will be formed under the general laws, which will be known as Columbian College. The latter will in reality be a department of the university. It will be the department of arts and sciences. The other departments–medicine, dentistry, law, jurisprudence and diplomacy will be continued as parts of the George Washington University.
By the way, one of the trustees was Dr. Edward M. Gallaudet, the son of Thomas H. Gallaudet (i.e., the namesake of the university).