Until the mid-70s, the area for what is now Swann Mall featured a wide, flat, empty, green space with straight, symmetrical sidewalks. In 1973, the university organized a competition, for a “major work of art” to go in the space, and planned to spend $35,000 to $40,000. George C. Norris won the completion with his untitled steel sculpture. The affectionate name of “Prairie Chicken” may come from Norris’ explanation of the project: “it is a hilltop gateway opening to the sun. It is the pages of a book spread out for those who will to be transported by its content. It is the prairie chicken’s feathers spread in full array or it is the ritual dance costume of a Blackfoot Indian. It’s supporting members grow out of the hill and tell of the interplay of energy between earth and sun…it is a form which is open to each observer’s own interpretation.” Norris also suggested changes to the landscaping in the area, including a hill for the sculpture to perch on, and a pond for ice skating.
Swann Mall officially opened in September 1975, taking its name from Gordon C. Swann, a former chair of the Board of Governors. The entire Mall project, including the sculpture, cost $200,000.
In 1996, a new sculpture by Katie Ohe appeared on the Mall. Called the “Garden of Learning,” the piece is a grouping of kinetic sculptures designed for interaction, akin to the other popular Ohe sculpture, the “Zipper” in the Science Theatres.
In 2013, the Building on the Vision arch relocated to Swann Mall from its original location in what is now the Taylor Quad. The arch marked the successful end to the university’s first major fund-raising event in 1996.
In the spring of 2018, Swann Mall closed for a major project: “deep utility work to replace aging water and storm lines,” and the construction of a new Block and refurbishment of the MacKimmie Tower. The Mall is scheduled for partial opening in fall 2018; the project’s completion date is 2022, when the Prairie Chicken and the Garden of Learning will be taken out of storage and reinstalled.