First Step Coffee House: "An Experiment in Communication"

Lisa Geiger
January 26, 2017

In late January of 1968, students in paint-splattered clothing moved secondhand furniture, fluorescent-colored posters, and even a shrunken head in a cage through the non-descript doors of 2312 N. Seminary Avenue. A hand-painted sign gave the only clue as to what lay within: The First Step. Opened on Feb. 8, 1968, the First Step was DePaul's first stand-alone coffee house, serving as a proto-student union and meeting place for students, faculty and activist groups.

The First Step entrance

The First Step entrance, shortly before 2312 N. Seminary Avenue was demolished to make way for Stuart Hall. (DePaul University/Special Collections and Archives) 

The First Step Coffee House opened after requests from student groups for an independent event space. With short cafeteria hours, the Lincoln Park Campus lacked a flexible space for students to meet outside of class time. One of the most vocal student groups requesting student activity space was Incol, an activist organization that released a 22-point platform in the "DePaulia" and the "Aletheia" in the first weeks of 1968 that included - among calls to restructure student government and the grading system - a request for a coffee house. When the school authorized the facility, it created a board of directors made up of representatives from Incol; the Council of Arts, Sciences, and Education; and the Student Activities Council, with a faculty moderator.

First Step was a multi-room space featuring a small coffee and food bar, a stereo and music selection, and, according to the Feb. 28, 1968 "Aletheia," "paintings, posters, photographs, slogans, signatures, collages and other things that defy description. It looks just like your room would look if ma and pa weren't so conventional." Students took smoke breaks, listened to music and played chess amid black lights, psychedelic posters and walls covered in swirling graffiti. The basement hosted guest speakers and live bands. Student activist groups dominated the coffee house event calendar. The Chicago Area Draft Resisters, the Quaker American Friends Service Group, and other anti-war organizations used First Step to hold presentations and kick off peace vigils. The coffee house also hosted non-political events, like a school Halloween party and after-hours class discussions.

The coffee house was a temporary measure to provide a common student space, placed in the path of the forthcoming Stuart Hall student center. When 2312 N. Seminary Avenue's demolition date approached in the fall of 1968, the university assigned the coffee house new space in the basement of a nearby ROTC building. While First Step organizers initially agreed to the move, the work of relocating the facility to a smaller space, as well as First Step's controversial reputation for leftist politics and liberal atmosphere for "recreational" activities, proved too difficult to overcome. The coffee house closed before December of 1968.

Construction of the Stuart Hall student center, completed in 1971, provided DePaulians in Lincoln Park with a larger space to meet and organize, and was the predecessor of today's Student Center, located just a block away from the site of the First Step. Despite its short tenure, First Step Coffee House fulfilled its goal of sparking communication among student groups, and pushed the university to create new facilities for student activities. As one of its founders wrote in 1968: "The First Step is the first step to awakening a great, if sleeping, urban university."