Sweatshirts, T-shirts, car decals and even woven blankets are sold at the University Bookstore reading, “GW 1821.” While the Columbian College was founded that year, the transition from the then-Columbian University to The George Washington University did not occur until 1904.
Attempting to address severe financial problems and accomodate an improving academic reputation, University officials began negotiations with the George Washington Memorial Association in early 1902.
The association was made up of a group of women dedicated to establishing a national university in Washington and upholding George Washington’s ideals of higher education. The group, founded in 1889, was offering Columbian University a new academic facility located in Van Ness Park, near the Ellipse, that would bring increased prestige to the college. The association was also offering to fund other construction as long as the college was renamed “The George Washington University.”
Columbian University President Charles W. Needham led negotiations, arguing that the University would prosper economically and academically through the help of the association.
“The national societies of history, economics, political science, chemistry and other sciences meet here in the halls of the University. Our students have the advantage of attending these gatherings, and the University is in this way made a center of national influence,” Needham wrote in a letter to Mrs. Archibald Hopkins, president of the George Washington Memorial Association.
The association initially sought to unite Columbian University with American University and what was then National University under Washington’s name. The GW law school eventually purchased National University.
Board of Trustees officials encouraged Needham to continue his negotiations with the George Washington Memorial Association throughout 1903 and 1904.
On January 23, 1904, Columbian University’s repeal of its Baptist affiliation was approved by Congress, and its name was set to be changed to The George Washington University. The Board of Trustees approved the name change in May of that year.
Because The George Washington University was designed to oversee post-graduate studies, the Columbian College was formed to preserve the university’s former name and establish a school for undergraduate studies. The reorganization of Columbian College was complete when its charter was approved by the Washington Recorder of Deeds on June 22, 1904.
Beginning September 1, 1904, the name “The George Washington University” became official. Classes began on September 28. During that first week of classes, The Hatchet reported that students already took heed to the University’s new name. Cheers of “G-E-O-R-G-E-George! Washington! Washington! Washington!” filled the opening exercises of the Columbian College, at which Dean William Allen Wilbur spoke on the importance of college education.
Students also quickly continued class battles, traditions that transferred from Columbian University. “The Battle Fought: The College Sophs Down the Freshmen,” read a headline in The Hatchet. It was reported that during a secret meeting, “some of the freshmen were pretty musky chaps and even with their numbers the upperclassmen had some stiff scraps down to them. Once or twice it looked as though the tables would be turned, but luck was on the side of (the class of) ’07.”
The story continued, “after the new men had been left to think for sometime alone in the cellar, they were taken out, hands and feet tied, and paraded ver town, just to show off their greenness.”
While the student body continued with their studies and traditions, which Needham gladly noted to the Board of Trustees, the president and the board were still keeping a close watch on the University’s financial situation. By 1906, the treasurer’s report showed a decreasing deficit, now at $6,000, in addition to an increase of registered students. The reorganization of GW was also finalized that first year and included the Department of Arts and Sciences: Columbian College and School of Graduate Studies, School of Medicine and School of Dentistry, School of Law and Jurisprudence, the Department of Politics and Diplomacy (replacing the School of Jurisprudence and Diplomacy) and the newly created Department of Architecture.
The University was also keeping up with its relationship with the George Washington Memorial Association. In order to finance the move to Van Ness Park and construction of the George Washington memorial building, both GW and the association had to raise funds. While the George Washington Memorial Association agreed to raise the $500,000 needed to build the Van Ness Park memorial, GW continued to face financial problems resulting in the refinancing of its debt through a $450,000 loan. This slowed the process to move the campus, although February 1905, remained a goal to lay the first cornerstone of the memorial building.
Creating an identity for GW remained a priority, and the Board approved new University colors and seal. Continental buff and blue, the colors of George Washington’s military uniform, were chosen through a “modern colorimetric examination” of the garment. Columbian University’s seal was modified to include the words “The George Washington University, 1821” on the outer circle, and a picture of George Washington was added to the open book of the Columbian seal. Deus nobis fiducia – God in our Trust – was written between the outer circle and the seal.
The colors and seal were formally introduced by Needham at the winter convocation on February 22, 1905.
The George Washington University Movement, a group of citizens and alumni, began in 1907 to publicize GW’s move to Van Ness Park from its downtown location, centered near 14th and I streets N.W. A goal of $7.5 million was set to finance the move and subsequent campus building construction; however, the Van Ness location was looking less than adequate. Due to its proximity to the Potomac, the land frequently flooded and the area had no plumbing system.
“They would have to reinvent the wheel,” said G. David Anderson, current University archivist, of the construction issues associated with the Van Ness Park location. But facing limited space at the downtown location, GW continued to research other area locations.
In an effort to solve the problems with Van Ness Park, other suggested campuses included Columbia Heights, on Florida Avenue between 14th and 11th streets; the Dean Estate, on Florida and Connecticut avenues; and donated land and a building in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Roosevelt Island on the Potomac, although it had no name at the time, was also once considered a possible campus location for GW. However, it was rejected because of the difficulty of transportation to and from the island.
The move to Van Ness Park remained on hold throughout the first decade of the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1912, when GW purchased a vacant building on 2023 G Street, did the University finally find a home – in Foggy Bottom.