Charles Needham, president of Columbian University from 1902 through its rebirth as George Washington University in 1905, was a man of optimism, vision, but ultimately, failure. He was the man responsible for the small school's jump into national prominence and for its fall into financial ruin. With his appointment, he publicly criticized the folly of past overexpenditure to improve the school's reputation and tried to place the college on a sound financial base through subscription and income-producing projects. But the lack of adequate facilities and the temptation to strive for a formal campus forced Needham to take action that ultimately proved unwise.
Columbian University was outgrowing its expensive midtown location at H Street between 13th and 15th Street. The school's buildings were spread around town and goals of "new buildings, dormitories and a setup for real student life" had long gone unmet. But due to the high price of real estate in this prime area, consolidation at midtown was not possible. Seeking to fulfill these promises and develop the college into a major university, Needham intended to parlay valuable property owned around the city by the school into the money needed to establish a real campus.
Inspired by the City Beautiful movement, campuses around the country were being designed, redesigned, and relocated to meet the challenge of a new 20th century aesthetic. As early as 1902, Needham commenced a plan to move the school to an open space suitable for a planned campus. It was his dream that the school would become a major academic force in this country, and he believed that Columbian University would thrive if a true campus could be constructed. The local architectural firm of Hornblower and Marshall prepared sketches and plans which were approved by the school's Board of Trustees. Needham asked the Trustees to sell the Law School building, valued at $225,000, to finance the purchase of a five-acre site near the old Van Ness mansion. But, Needham's financing plan met with strong opposition. Undaunted in his goal, Needham arranged for loans to finance the purchase, doing exactly that for which he had condemned his predecessors.
Concomitant with Needham's efforts, interest in the establishment of a national university was growing. The George Washington Memorial Association, formed in 1897 by a group of influential and patriotic women, sought the founding of just such a national university "for the purpose and with the objects substantially set forth in the last will of George Washington." Washington's intention had been the development of a major center of academics sited within the boundaries of the District of Columbia. Independent of these efforts, John Wesley Hoyt, prominent educator, author and skilled organizer, had long sought support for his concept of a national university. Recognizing the significance of the Memorial Association, Hoyt was seeking ways to mesh his ideas with theirs, when in 1903 he wrote to Columbian University suggesting a conference to discuss the possibility of that school being developed into such a university. The school did not make a formal response to him, but by his second inquiry in 1904, the Board of Trustees was in the throes of negotiation with the George Washington Memorial Association. That year the goals of all three came together when the Association offered to fund the erection of building to be known as the Washington Memorial if Columbian University would take on the name George Washington University for its post-graduate program.
Soon, sufficient funds had been pledged to allow President Needham to publicly announce his plan to move the school to Van Ness Park. There a group of buildings would be constructed centering on an administration building to be known as the George Washington Memorial Building. This announcement was followed by the official change of the school's name to the George Washington University and a complete reorganization.
In keeping with the architectural fashion of the day, an architectural competition was set up by Percy Ash, the school's professor of architecture. Six major architectural firms from Washington, New York, Philadelphia, and Boston were invited to enter designs proposing a general scheme for the Van Ness Park site, and specific plans for the memorial building. A jury consisting of Charles McKim, Chairman of the Park Commission, Bernard Green, Superintendent of the Library of Congress, and Ash selected the designs of the New York firm of George B. Post and Son.
On January 28, 1906, the Washington Post published the winning scheme, a grand Beaux Arts complex intended to complement the architecture of the White House and other nearby public buildings. Unfortunately, the selected five-acre site could not meet the buildings' program requirements and more land was needed. The school made plans to raise the necessary $2,500,000. But, despite their enthusiasm, adequate funds could not be raised. The change in plans had voided many earlier subscriptions, and money pledged was not easy to collect. Efforts to select an alternate, less expensive, site were unresolved. The real estate loans made to purchase the original site were due without there being sufficient funds for payment, making refinancing the only alternative. With the increased payments, more and more funds were needed, until principal funds had to be used to pay for operating expenses. With the added pressure of the financial Panic of 1907 shaking the entire city, the school's resources were soon depleted. The entire building scheme was dropped as the University found itself publicly embarrassed by its serious financial problems. The ambition of President Needham to turn a small college into a national university was called "rainbow chasing" by University trustee Maxwell Woodhull and the school that sought to create a major campus on a grand scale found itself unable to pay its professors.