Forty acres of land owned by two professional gamblers and a saloon owner became the site of the University of Arizona in 1886. A year later, ground was broken for the first — and only — building present on campus when the school opened in 1891.
Classrooms, offices, laboratories, a kitchen and mess hall, a photography dark room, and dorms for the 32 students and six faculty members were all in Old Main.
According to the Arizona Daily Star, Phoenix architect James Miller Creighton was paid $500 to design Old Main. The building featured high ceilings and shaded porches to fight Tucson’s high temperatures. The stone used in the construction of the building came from a quarry south of Ajo Road and bricks were made on-site.
Students rode horses to class and tied them to hitching posts outside Old Main. Running around the second floor balcony was an offense that cost students 10 demerits.
On Jan. 31, 1920, the Alexander Berger Memorial Fountain in front of Old Main was dedicated. Students, faculty, townspeople, and military came out to honor the University’s World War I dead, including Berger’s nephew, and to greet the guest of honor, General of the Armies of the United States John J. Pershing, who at the time was the only man to ever hold the highest officer rank of the U.S. Army.
By 1938, the building was abandoned and condemned. In 1942, the U.S. Navy repaired Old Main and used it for a training school during World War II. It was turned back into a campus building by the Navy in 1945 at a cost of $20,000.
In 1972, Old Main was added to the National Register of Historic Places.