The University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s iconic “Kissing Columns” are on the move.
Now, remain calm Husker faithful, this news doesn’t portend the legendary crumbling should a student ever earn a degree before collecting a consensual kiss betwixt the pillars. Rather, the granite columns (and nearby original university gates, both of which have stood next to Memorial Stadium for 86 years) are being temporarily removed to protect them before work begins this summer on the Huskers’ $155 million athletics complex.
“This project will be history on the move,” said Grant Watson, construction manager for Facilities Planning and Capital Programs. “Our plan is to do everything we can to safely remove all 24 of the columns and the attached gates. They will be well-cared for while in storage, awaiting their return to campus for generations of Huskers to enjoy.”
The columns will be in place for the university’s May 8 in-person, undergraduate commencement ceremonies in Memorial Stadium. Hausmann Construction will begin their removal on May 10. The project is scheduled for completion by May 31 and will impact campus traffic in the area.
“Our hope is to minimize the impact to the campus community and complete the work within that week after graduation,” said Charlie Purdham, construction superintendent for Haussmann. “However, we’ve found no documentation on how the columns were assembled. So, there will be a learning curve as we work out the safest way to remove them.”
Gifts from Omaha
Made of granite cut from a quarry in Colorado, the columns originally stood at the front of Omaha’s Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railway Station. The station, designed by Thomas Kimball and constructed in 1898 for the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, underwent an extensive renovation in 1929-30 and the columns were removed.
Two University of Nebraska administrators — George Seymour, a former regent with an interest in campus planning, and Erwin Barbour, then director of the NU State Museum — worked with the Burlington Railroad to have the columns donated to the university. Burlington officials agreed, paying to have each of the 28, 18,000-pound, 22-foot-tall columns shipped to campus.
The columns would remain idle in a lonely corner of campus from 1930 to 1935 as leaders developed and discarded various plans for the growing university.
In 1935, 24 of the columns were placed in the current colonnade in the northeast shadow of Memorial Stadium. The other four columns — all of which were damaged — would be trimmed and used in the Bob Devaney/Tom Osborne tribute that stands outside the southwest corner of the stadium.
Through the years, the columns have provided a backdrop for events and game days. Many Huskers have posed for photos, particularly around graduation, among them or danced between them. They’ve also marked other important life moments for alumni — including serving as the site for this writer’s marriage proposal.
And, at some point within the columns’ celebrated history on campus, the story about crumbling and a never-kissed female graduate took root as legend.
Down the rabbit hole
In the months leading up to the pending relocation, university and Hausmann officials tried to dig deeper into the history of the columns. They specifically sought documents outlining how the pillars were affixed to the concrete slab they stand on.
The team’s search included help from the University Archives and Special Collections, State Historical Society and BNSF Historical Society. They also consulted with stone cutters and masons to gather basic details into techniques that may have been used.
“We’ve chased down many rabbit holes in our search for historical information,” Purdham said. “Really all we know for certain is they have three separate pieces — the base, taper column and a cap piece.”
Haussmann workers examined the columns with a concrete scanner but failed to detect any metal fasteners within the dense granite. They did discover that a cap had been accidentally removed during previous construction in the area, which led to a few clues.
“We learned that the caps have four pins in them and it appeared they were set in mortar,” Purdham said. “Other than that, we’re kind of flying blind.”
Watson said there are multiple approaches being considered for removal — including cutting through existing mortar or removal with existing concrete still attached. The final plan will come into focus as the project begins.
“We will be marking the columns discretely — hidden from the naked eye — so we can properly orient them when they return,” Watson said. “We also plan to fully document the removal and assembly processes, leaving a detailed record in case this occurs again in another 100 years.”
A new location
Final plans for the Huskers’ new athletic facility have forever shifted the positioning of the columns. In the final design, the facility — which will be linked to Hawks Championship Center and cover most of what currently is Ed Weir Track — will feature a front door where the columns stand today.
University leaders are working to identify a new spot that allows the columns and gates to continue as a featured part of campus. Details on a new location will be announced.
For Purdham and Watson, the immediate focus is on safely removing and preserving the iconic columns.
“Any time you get the chance to basically go back in time and be a part of something that is special to this university, it’s special,” Purdham said. “These columns have been here for more than 80 years. They’re special, something we hold dear and want to see on campus.
“They are part of our shared history as Huskers. And, for us to have this opportunity to successfully and safely move this campus icon means the world to us.”