Sections of the following are excerpted from a multi-part series on the history of the College of Law first published in Counselor magazine between 2007 and 2008. Those original pieces were researched and written by Jeffrey L. Cruikshank and John Sedgwick.
Last Year on the Corner of Clifton and Calhoun
1925: A new home for the College of Law on the corner of Clifton and Calhoun
On October 28, 1925, the University of Cincinnati community—as well as much of Cincinnati officialdom—turned out to welcome to campus a distinguished visitor and alumnus.
William Howard Taft, the larger-than life Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court and former President of the United States, had come to participate in the dedication of Alphonso Taft Hall, the new home for the University’s College of Law. The handsome building, adorned with distinctive Georgian columns, was named after Taft’s father and built, in part, with a $75,000 gift from Cincinnati Times-Star publisher Charles P. Taft and his wife Anna Stinton Taft. Charles P. Taft was the half-brother of William Howard Taft, and himself a former congressman.
The Chief Justice—who was receiving an honorary degree that day, and therefore wore a cap and gown—spoke in the University gymnasium, the only space on campus that could accommodate the overflow crowd. Dignitaries present included U.S. Vice President Charles G. Dawes, Speaker of the House of Representatives Nicholas Longworth III, and former House Speaker Joseph G. Cannon—all of whom, like Chief Justice Taft, were graduates of Cincinnati’s small but disproportionately successful law school.
The particular dimensions of the building that William Howard Taft helped dedicate in October 1925 ensured a distinct character for the College of Law. Yes, Taft Hall was an impressive building. But in truth, it was a thrifty and modest home for the college: just three classrooms, a practice courtroom, eight offices, and a library. Budget certainly played a role in defining this intimate scale, but the school’s leaders also kept its physical facilities small so that it would retain its distinctive, intimate character.
In his speech, the Chief Justice endorsed this approach. “This school has now less than one hundred students,” he proclaimed. “There is not the slightest occasion for worry over that fact. The high purpose of the Trustees and Faculty of the University should be not so much to enlarge the numbers in the school as to elevate its standards.”
In his speech at the dedication of Taft Hall, William Howard Taft pointed out that the law school and the city of Cincinnati had grown up together. This mutual progression had, in fact, been part of the vision of the school’s founder, Timothy Walker. Arriving in Cincinnati from Massachusetts, Walker saw a city on the move, filled with vitality and promise. When he opened the school above his downtown law office in 1833, he understood that the city would need to be able to call upon an ever-growing cadre of skilled practitioners. That has been a central responsibility of the College of Law ever since.
Renovating our home at the corner
By 1972, according to an internal study, Taft Hall housed 340 students, 17 faculty and 11 staff members, and presented "a serious physical facility problem."
Cramped and increasingly obsolete, the once-grand old building now poured water during rainstorms. The library had only 164 seats, whereas the Association of American Law Schools' (AALS) accreditation standards called for 221. It was on pace to run out of shelf space within two and a half years. Another report concluded that while the library was a "pleasant place to work," it was half the size it needed to be. By 1975, the library situation was deemed dire.
In the winter of 1974, the College of Law embarked on a national search for a new dean. One of the candidates considered was future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then a law professor at Columbia, and the first woman to win tenure there. But no consensus developed for an outside candidate, and, in March, the College of Law turned to Sam Wilson, who joined the College as an associate dean in the 1960s and had served for stints as acting dean. When he once again took up the deanship in the spring of 1974, he immediately began making bold plans to address the school's most urgent problem: the manifest shortcomings of Taft Hall.
Here's where luck and a good Rolodex entered the picture. In the late 1960s, Wilson had taught a bright young student named Norman Murdock, who had won a seat in the Ohio House of Representatives while still a third-year student at the law school. By the time Wilson came knocking on his State House door in the mid '70s, Murdock was the second-ranking Republican in the Ohio House.
Wilson explained the problem to his former student. The external review committees had been hinting that the College of Law might actually lose its all-important accreditation if the school's facilities (and especially its library) were not improved. Wilson asked Murdock for $11 million for a new building, in the vicinity of today's Martin Luther King Drive, on the north end of campus. "I was sympathetic," Murdock recalls, "but I told him that it was not possible to build new, and that they'd have to go for rehabbing the existing facility."
Ultimately, Wilson's back-channel tactics and Norm Murdock's careful shepherding of the capital request at the State Houe level paid off, securing for the college a $6.25 million allocation for a new building. The University committed itself to mounting a $2 million fund drive to augment those state funds. "By golly," said Wilson some 30 years later, "the law school was my client, and I was going to push their case just as far as I could."
In November 1977, the University and legislature agreed to a renovation and expansion of Taft Hall. Through the spring of 1978, plans were drawn up to rebuild Taft Hall in stages, to minimize disruptions.
A new home for the College of Law
Today, the College of Law is on the verge of another new building, this one along Martin Luther King Drive in the heart of campus and along the primary connector to the new Innovation Corridor, strengthening connections to university partners and providing unparalleled access and opportunity to our community partners including the more than 800 law firms, Fortune 500 companies, nonprofit organizations, agencies, and state and federal courts that call Cincinnati home.
On March 1, 2021, the University broke ground on the site of the College's new home.
“This new building will exemplify the upward trajectory of our law school, a tangible reminder to embrace our next purpose,” says Verna Williams, dean of the law school. “Its design will meet the evolving, innovative needs of our students for years to come."
This new building will mark the fifth time the College of Law has moved in its nearly 200-year history. We hope you've enjoyed this look back at our time on the corner of Clifton and Calhoun. Alumni of the College from this time are encouraged to submit photos and memories so that we might collect them and post them to this page.