The Story of Old Main's Original Architect

Aug. 11, 2014

When Becky Baumert learned about the project to restore Old Main, she reached out to Corky Poster, the architect. She had a story to tell him about another architect: her great-grandfather, who designed the original building more than a century ago. 

(Photo credit: Jacob Chinn/UA Alumni Association)

Though she never met James Miller Creghton, Baumert's research has helped her shape a fairly detailed idea of who her great-grandfather was: a rough and tough family man who worked hard and placed a high value on education.

Baumert, who lives in Phoenix, contacted architect Corky Poster after hearing that the UA, in collaboration with Poster Frost Mirto Inc. and design-builder Sundt Construction Inc., was renovating and restoring the building.

The renovation of Old Main, the UA's first building, is an effort to restore the building, which had fallen into serious disrepair in recent years. At the direction of UA President Ann Weaver Hart, the building will once again be the heart of campus, with spaces for students, their families and community members to connect with the UA.

A retired court reporter, Baumert began documenting her family's history nearly three decades ago – relying on original files maintained by her grandmother, Jessie Creighton.

According to Baumert's interviews, family records and public information, Creighton's father immigrated to Canada from Scotland in 1820. Baumert was born there in 1856 and, from the age of 9 until 16, worked as an apprentice to a cabinet-maker.

As a young man, Creighton walked from Philadelphia to Charlottesville, Virginia, so he could take a job at the University of Virginia, according to an interview Baumert had with her uncle, Joseph F. Walton, in 1987. Walton noted that Creighton studied architecture, graduating at the age of 21. After graduating, Creighton made his way to Chicago, then Denver and later Phoenix. 

In 1881, he moved to Arizona, which was still a territory, and was involved in the planning, design and construction of dozens of buildings throughout the state, including the Arizona State University President's House, the old Phoenix City Hall building and its courthouse, various schools and churches throughout Phoenix and Mesa and buildings at Fort Huachuca.

He also was the architect for the Old Dominion Hotel in Globe and the first school in what is now the Osborn School District in Phoenix.

Many buildings Creighton worked on over the course of his decades-long career are listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

Creighton was commissioned to design Old Main, drafting the building's simple, cruciform plan and sinking the building 3 feet below ground despite the layer of cementlike caliche that sat below the structure. Walton noted that the budget was $67,500, a bargain for a two-story building of Old Main's size.

"And to everybody's surprise, he provided a two-story building so that the foundation and one roof covered twice the number of classroom square feet," Walton told Baumert. Because of his efficient use of space and money, Creighton was able to add covered porches around the building.

At the time, Creighton envisioned that the design would enable the building to be easily modified over its years of use – which has proved to be true.

Those involved in the planning and construction of the building were offered the opportunity to have their names included on a plaque commemorating the project. But the privilege cost $25 and Creighton didn't want to pay it so his name was left off. A plaque carrying his name was later added to the west entrance of the building.

Creighton and his first wife, Mary Effie Smith (whose father founded Smith College, the private liberal arts school for women in Massachusetts), had nine children. Smith died in 1913, and Creighton married her sister, Nellie Smith, who had moved to Arizona to help him raise the children.

Education was a priority for Creighton, who supported seven of his children through college. An invoice in Baumert's files indicates that, in 1933, he had invested $26,244 in their education, each of them attending at least three years at various higher education institutions. At the end of the invoice, Creighton typed: "The above cost has been but a small part of the struggle and preservence (sic) of our children in this great work of preparation for life's responsibilities in a world where knowledge is power."

Late in life, Creighton took to traveling.

"In the early 1930s, he traveled around the world on trips by ship," Baumert said. "He would take a typewriter and keep a diary, which I have read. I was so fascinated with the different countries he visited."

In 1934, Creighton typed a letter to his eight children, celebrating his 78th birthday. In the letter, he mused about a future of reduced work and everyday leisure, "common in the days of Pompeii and Rome." Creighton explained that he valued "honest labor" while acknowledging that the younger generation of his time viewed work as a form of punishment. "The sting of dessolution (sic) in my old body slows me up on the race course. My working days are over," he wrote. "I spent most of my time looking backward. The book of my life is about closed."

Baumert never had a chance to meet her great-grandfather. Creighton died in Phoenix in 1946, about a decade before Baumert was born.

While Baumert never studied at the UA, her family has several other direct ties to the University. Her husband, Joe Dixon, father and uncle are UA grads; her son, Creighton Dixon, is currently a student at the James E. Rogers College of Law. She also has several other relatives who live in Tucson.

To learn more about Old Main's renovation, read "Old Main Reopens Its Doors" and "Corky Poster: UA's 'sun' preserved for future generations."