Nathan Clifford Ricker

Nathan Ricker created the architectural engineering program at the University of Illinois as well as several of the buildings on campus. He was also the first person to receive a degree in architecture in the United States. He dedicated his life to teaching architecture at University of Illinois.

Nathan Ricker 1875

Early Life

Nathan Ricker was born June 24, 1843 and spent his early childhood on a 150-acre farm in Acton, Maine. Ricker’s father taught him mental arithmetic at an early age, a lesson he was grateful for, as it was helpful for his career as an architect.

sketch of villa
Design for Villa by Ricker as a student, March 14, 1872

At 13, Ricker moved to Springvale, Maine, where he went to high school and worked on his family’s corn mill. At 18 years of age, Ricker instructed at a local school, and studied Latin, French, Botany, and Geology in his spare time. Ricker’s studies were interrupted in the winter of 1862-1863, when he joined the U.S. commissary services. There he weighed and measured rations for civilians. In the spring, he returned to Maine and worked on his family’s mill in the morning and studied at night.

He developed a passion for wood working and spent a couple years working on carpentry for buildings in La Harpe, Illinois. Ricker was inspired to go to the University of Illinois when a friend who attended the school described the vast opportunities available there.

outside photo of Altgeld
Altgeld Hall , 1948, designed by Ricker

Duration at University of Illinois

Ricker came to the University of Illinois at midnight on January 2, 1870, the night before break ended. He spent his first night of college sleeping on the floor, due to limited bed arrangements. He was 26 years old when he started school. He then began his studies in architecture.

In the fall term of 1872, the president of the university, John M. Gregory, asked Ricker to take over the architecture drawings for a professor on leave.  Gregory offered Ricker, a senior student at the time, a job as an instructor for the next school year. Ricker accepted the offer. He graduated in the winter term of 1873.

two story photo inside building with arches and columns
Inside Altgeld Hall, Library, 1920

He studied in Europe for six months with President Gregory and developed and deepened his knowledge of different architectural styles, concentrating on German Gothic designs, which can be seen in his work on Altgeld Hall. In 1878, at 35 years of age, Ricker was elected the Dean of the Engineering Department, which he was very surprised about. He held the position for 27 years. Ricker was the only professor in the architectural department, until he recruited two more professors to the department in 1885.

Harker Hall with the Natural History Building in the background. Both were designed by Ricker, 1915

In the same year, he designed and supervised the construction of the Altgeld Hall (Law Hall), the Old Armory, Library Hall, and Natural History Hall. He was also one of the first University of Illinois faculty to publish his work, In 1890 Ricker created a curriculum for architectural engineering, because he realized the importance of design to be a competent builder. Ricker claimed this to be the first program of its kind in the United States (Ricker, 1922). He was the dean of the Engineering College for 27 years and in charge of the architectural department for 44 years until his resignation in 1906.

Ricker plays an important role in the history of Illinois because he helped the University develop a world class education in the field of architectural engineering. He also made the campus beam with beautiful constructed buildings. His buildings around campus are visited by hundreds of people each day that walk by them to their classes and jobs.

Ricker was one of the architects for the following buildings on campus:

  • Altgeld Hall
  • Aeronautical Engineering Lab B
  • Kenney Gymnasium Annex
  • Harker Hall
  • Natural History Building


Altgeld Hall. (1948). Photographic Negatives, 1899-1960, Record Series 39/2/20, Box 57, Folder: Altgeld 1940-49. University of Illinois Archives.

Altgeld Hal “Library”. (1920). Photographic Negatives, 1899-1960, Record Series 39/2/20, Box 57, Folder: Altgeld 1940-49. University of Illinois Archives.

Design for a villa – Ricker. (1872, March 14). Students’ Architectural Drawings 1870-72, 1880-93. Record Series 12/2/18. University of Illinois Archives.

Harker Hall. (1915). Photograph Album, 1909-1914. Record Series 39/2/20, Box BUI – Harker Hall, Folder BUI – Harker 1897-1929. University of Illinois Archives.

Nathan C. Ricker Papers. (1875-1925). Record Series 12/2/22, box 2, 5, and 6. University of Illinois Archives.

Portrait of Nathan Clifford Ricker. (1875). Henry M. Dunlap Papers. Record Series: 26/20/13, Box 1, Folder Photographs of Class of 1875 and instructors. University of Illinois Archives.

Ricker, Nathan. (1922) A Story of a Life. Record Series 12/2/1 Box 15. University of Illinois Archives.

Thomas E. O’Donnell Papers. (1919-1961). Record Series, 12/2/24 box 1, University of Illinois Archives.

Contributors: Iqra Chaudhry