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Operation skyscraper: A history of the Frank J. Lewis Center

Fr. Theodore J. Wangler, C.M., walks with Frank J. Lewis at the dedication of the Frank J. Lewis Center on May 2, 1959.
Fr. Theodore J. Wangler, C.M., (right) walks with Frank J. Lewis at the dedication of the Frank J. Lewis Center on May 2, 1959. (Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives)
On Oct. 15, 1955, DePaul received one of the most momentous gifts in its history: ownership of what was then the W.W. Kimball Building. The giver of this gift was Chicago businessman-turned-philanthropist, Frank J. Lewis. 

“Now the Vincentian Fathers have a home of their own in the very center of things in Chicago,” Lewis said when he conveyed the building to DePaul. “Long after you and I are gone, thousands of men and women of every race and nationality will be graduating from your colleges downtown and enriching the professional, business, and cultural life of the city and country.” 

After a few years of renovations, the university dedicated the Frank J. Lewis Center on May 2, 1959. Though DePaul has grown tremendously in the 60 years since then, Lewis’ prediction remains true: the Lewis Center has been the home of thousands of diverse students who use what they learn on campus to make an impact in the world.

Though DePaul had maintained a Loop Campus since moving College of Commerce classes there in 1914, it had always been transient. DePaul rented floors of buildings during its early decades in the Loop, including space in the Taylor Building at 84 E. Randolph and the Powers Building at 37 S. Wabash. It wasn’t until construction was completed on 64 E. Lake St. in 1928 that DePaul finally had a building of its own. Though constructed for DePaul’s use, however, the building technically did not belong to the university – the DePaul Education Aid Society owned it, and rented to the university.

By 1955, DePaul was down to only 64 E. Lake St. in the Loop, and the rented building was quickly becoming too small to house the College of Commerce, the College of Law, the School of Music, University College, the Graduate School, and executive and general offices. Fortunately, luck struck one day in the spring of 1955 when then-President Rev. Comerford J. O’Malley, C.M., saw the Kimball Building was for sale while reading the local newspapers. Fr. O’Malley thought of Frank J. Lewis, a philanthropist who had both previously given to DePaul and was noted for his generosity towards various Catholic colleges and universities throughout the Chicagoland area. Additionally, Lewis had worked with the DePaul Education Aid Society in the 1920s and since then, as he explained later, “had been concerned about a permanent [Loop] location for DePaul.”  After initial individual conversations regarding the building with Lewis and Board of Lay Trustees Chairman Leo Sheridan, the three men met at a luncheon for the Irish Fellowship Club on June 16. Things moved quickly from there, and by July 28, Frank J. Lewis had purchased the Kimball Building with the intention of gifting it to DePaul.

As early as June 30, Fr. O’Malley had told Lewis the building would be renamed the Frank J. Lewis Center in his honor, though it would take a few years to get there. The building needed renovations. 

Having recently completed a successful fundraising campaign to build Alumni Hall, DePaul turned to fundraising again to raise the money for the construction work. A fundraising brochure sent out at the time highlighted the Kimball Building’s size – twice that of 64 E. Lake -- its 500-seat auditorium, and the need for a new home for 6,500 Loop-based students. The estimated cost for “transforming the Kimball Building into DePaul’s new downtown skyscraper university” was $1.5 million. The name used for the campaign, appropriately enough, was “Operation Skyscraper.”

After completing renovations including the addition of a library and the Miraculous Medal Chapel, the university moved its executive offices, general offices, and Loop-based academic colleges and departments to the center by June 1, 1958. The doors opened to 7,000 students the following September. The building’s renaming to the Frank J. Lewis Center became official the following May with a dedication featuring the Archbishop of Chicago and Frank J. Lewis himself. 

The dedication was a huge event for everyone involved. “The New World,” the newspaper of the Chicago Archdiocese, dedicated their May 1 issue entirely to DePaul and its new skyscraper university. The paper featured a rare public quote from the ever-modest Frank J. Lewis. 
“Whatever you don’t need, for goodness’ sake, don’t keep. Give it away. You’ll be happier!”

Today, DePaul’s Loop Campus is much larger, containing five buildings in addition to the Lewis Center. Yet, just as Frank J. Lewis predicted more than 60 years ago, the Lewis Center still stands. It houses DePaul’s College of Law, and undoubtedly continues to see thousands of students every year. Students, as Frank J. Lewis stated, of all different backgrounds and nationalities, who go on to use the lessons they learn at DePaul to create an impact on the city and the world.