On Jan. 19, 1973, as if by magic, a “posh new hub for Northwestern community activities” opened on land that had been 40 feet under water a few years before. The dedication program advertised previously unheard of luxuries, from coffee and free telephones to “good music in the quadrasonic.” Norris University Center soon became an integral part of Northwestern life and—for its first decade—nightlife.
Before Norris, students frequented Scott Hall, across from where the Arch now stands. But as the school grew, Scott Hall’s simple grill and offices grew inadequate and students began to call for new facilities. J. Roscoe Miller—Northwestern’s only chancellor to date—answered their call in his “Plan for the Seventies.”
Northwestern’s Department of Planning conducted intensive research on what students wanted in the new center, including surveying students at eight similar institutions. The research ranked possible elements for the new building. Unique features such as a browsing and listening library, an art gallery and craft shops, all ranked in the top 10. Surprisingly, a “party room” only ranked 15th.
Many of these features, including the browsing library, were inspired by the University of Wisconsin’s student union. Despite Norris’ location across from University Library, the planners argued that “the more opportunity presented to students to find books readily, the better.” This logic swayed the Northwestern administration.
Norris also had other options for cultured students. “The union ... has also been found to be a very favorable place for a small gallery,” the planners noted, convinced by the Wisconsin gallery’s 842 visitors a day. The Dittmar Gallery would never get nearly as popular, but attracted sizable crowds in the ‘70s for the Art Bank. The Art Bank, the grandfather of the poster sale, allowed students to rent all sorts of art for only $3 a quarter.
Norris’ attractions weren’t all artistic. While Norbucks, installed in winter 2007, has arguably been the most well-received feature in Norris’ history, the student center’s most controversial feature is a close second. Discussion of a bar in Norris began as soon as Evanston became a wet city. In 1974, President Robert Strotz told The Daily that NU was “marching in the direction of having beer and wine at Norris.”
First, NU had to petition the city to let it apply for a liquor license. When the Liquor Board finally allowed the University to apply in 1978, it took just under three months for the application to be approved. With that hurdle cleared, plans crawled ahead. Finally, in 1980, after a survey showed 95 percent of the campus approved of liquor in Norris, the student center began serving alcohol at special events.
Two years later, “The Gathering Place,” often called “The Bar,” opened on the ground floor of Norris. It was the only bar in Evanston that didn’t require “a tie and a heavy wallet,” according to The Chicago Tribune. Open until 2 a.m. on the weekends, it featured specials such as “Piano Bar and Happy Hour from 5 until 7” and “Screaming Orgasm” shots for $2.85.
Sadly, The Bar closed in 1992. As NU began to crack down on alcohol on campus, the Norris bar was implicated in a drunk driving incident involving a 19-year-old freshman. It survived a two-week city shutdown, but would close for summer, never to reopen. It would be replaced with a Sbarro, in fall 2002, followed by Frontera Fresco in 2012, just in time for Norris University Center’s 40th birthday.