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At 150, Old Main Rocks!

By R. Lance Factor, George Appleton Lawrence Distinguished Service Professor of Philosophy

"Old Main is the link that binds the Knox of 1937 to the
Knox of the founders in 1857."
-- Janet Greig Post

When Old Main opened on July 7, 1857, it was known as “Main College.” Our beloved edifice did not become “old” until after Alumni Hall opened in 1890. The Knox Trustees celebrated their new “Main College” and its companion the “Female College” (later Whiting Hall) by authorizing the handsome sum of $75.00 for a public dinner. They exulted in the fact that 1857 saw the completion of Main College, Whiting Hall, a new boarding house, and a network of wooden sidewalks to stitch the campus together. After spending more than one fourth of the College’s $400,000 endowment for these improvements, Knox could offer a campus to match its published claim to be the “third wealthiest college in the nation.” The fact that nearly equal amounts of money went to facilities for men and women convincingly demonstrated Knox’s unwavering commitment to coeducation.

Building in Red, White, and Blue

An early lithograph of Old Main.

In the earliest lithographs and photographs of Old Main, we find corner battlements, a crenelated center section, and an octagonal platform supporting the bell tower. The battlements, center section, and jaunty finial on the bell tower came down in 1890, when a new hip roof covered the octagon platform. The octagon still supports the bell tower, and the original pulley stands ready for the bell rope. What our earliest pictures do not show is the color of the building. Old Main and Whiting had cherry red brick, lead white windows and doors, and blue limestone foundations, porches, and entrances. Charles Ulricson, the Swedish born immigrant architect and builder of both Old Main and Whiting Hall, made a special effort to explore Illinois quarries searching for the bluest limestone available. He sought and received extra money from the Trustees to purchase 13 carloads of Aurora Blue Cloud. Old Main began its life in an all American tricolor of red, white, and blue. In May 1856, when Ulricson set the cornerstone of Old Main, he became a naturalized American citizen.

The festive look of Old Main in early lithographs is no lie. Then and now, “Old Main Rocks!” And the town of Galesburg knew it. They celebrated Old Main’s opening day with a fireworks display in College Park (now Standish Park). In 1857 there were no trees, no South Street, and no county courthouse between Old Main and Whiting Hall. Open fields formed a perfect space for a crackling good party. As darkness descended, the magistrates lit bonfires, a band played stirring marches, and the locals set off their firecrackers, phosphorous bombs, and flares. In the smoky glow of the night sky, the new red, white, and blue buildings must have been captivating. Year One for Old Main had begun.

Arguably Old Main’s contribution to campus life began nine days earlier. On the morning of Commencement, June 25, 1857, a group of men and women students gathered on the north porch of Main College to protest the firing of President Blanchard. They cheered, made speeches, and signed resolutions. Soon the senior class joined them, announcing that they would boycott their own Commencement scheduled for later that afternoon. The seniors called their action a “self-dismissal.” Only one senior, the son of a Knox Trustee, took his degree. Thus the first Commencement in the shadow of Old Main had only one graduate.

Old Main saw another protest in May 1970 when, in the wake of yet another misstep in VietNam, a group of men and women calling themselves, “The Students Are Revolting (It’s a noun, not a sentence.)” occupied the Dean’s office. The humor of the protestors softened the outrage of a take over. The south windows became a kind of press release drop box for “non negotiable” demands, and the south porch became, in turn, a spectator’s platform where curious observers witnessed the dynamics of a Knox “sit in.”

Old Main’s porches, like her famously well-worn stairs, have supported millions of footsteps, as well as numerous debates, protests, reenactments, and Commencements. The stairs remind all students of their place in the invisible chain linking them to previous generations. Similarly the porches create the first welcoming step into Knox just as they sustain the last steps at graduation. For all their apparent solidity, the original Blue Cloud porches flaked and crumbled almost as quickly as the stone turned from blue tint to buttery brown. Illinois River bottom limestone proved too soft to withstand the steady march of the generations and too porous to withstand the Illinois climate.

When S.S. McClure put a picture of Old Main in his 1914 autobiography, it showed no south porch and only three steps as on the east and west. In 1890, student editors wondered in print if Old Main ever had a south porch to match the north. After all, the beauty of Old Main lies in its remarkable symmetry and balance. Shouldn’t the south have a porch as well? The College had saved the north porch by plastering it over with cement. The same cosmetic technique hid large cracks in the foundation stones. To maintain something of the original color, which had quickly leached away, the College applied red paint. Ivy concealed the peeling paint and cracked brick, but did nothing to arrest the slow decay of a beautiful building.

Curriculum Meets Construction

Old Main 302, circa 1936.

At the turn of the century, a biology professor complained that his laboratory lacked sufficient light. He insisted on having the glorious windows, so carefully designed and crafted by Ulricson, replaced with large rectangular panes. The chapel, which had been the jewel in Ulricson’s masterpiece, occupied the entire east side starting on the second floor. It was 34 feet wide, 67 feet in length, and soared to a height of 29 feet with a ceiling of oak panels in a trefoil design that matched the panels we still see on the upper windows. The chapel was not the only large room in the building. On the first floor, a spacious “Chemical Laboratory” occupied the entire west wing, and, as a safety measure, the west door opened directly into the laboratory. The Trustees furnished the laboratory with “the finest mechanical and geological apparatus” imported from Boston. From the outset Knox’s Trustees determined that the Knox curriculum would be thoroughly modern and follow the example of Oxford and Cambridge in giving equal weight to “Natural Philosophy” and “Moral Philosophy.” The former received a first floor laboratory and “apparatus” rooms. The latter occupied the second and third floor and enjoyed a spacious Philosophy Hall, Library, and a Rhetorical Room, which became the home of Knox’s two literary societies. Public speaking and debate were the creative writing, literature, and theatre of their day. Freedom of expression took hold quickly, and the literary societies soon gained almost complete control over their debate topics and their literary magazines. On the second floor, religion and the president’s office symbolically held the middle ground between the sciences and the humanities.

Knox’s early presidents had many roles. Today, we would identify them as chief administrator, fundraiser, professor of intellectual history, dean of the faculty, dean of students, and chapel speaker. Since the president often preached at the compulsory chapel services, he needed to be near his podium. His office window gave him an excellent view of the traffic between The Bricks, which were the men’s dormitory, and Whiting Hall. Women attended chapel, and they took some classes in Old Main. Fine Arts, Music, and Etiquette were for women only. They stayed safely within Whiting Hall. When the College purchased a very fine piano and placed it in a Whiting Hall parlor, it immediately became the center of social life. Both men and women flocked to the parlor to hear and to play this rare instrument. The joy and intoxication of music shared between young men and women has often been important to college life. It is certainly that way today, but in 1858 the connection between music and the passions soon proved alarming to the Trustees. They passed a resolution limiting “piano playing’ to students who were enrolled in music classes. This meant only women had access to the piano. Men had to return to their debates in Old Main.

The first of many changes of the interior came within 10 years of opening day. In the Panic of 1857, every bank in Illinois failed. This disaster eliminated all of the endowment that hadn’t been spent on buildings. The Trustees were forced to pledge all of Knox’s property and buildings as security for a $15,000 loan at 10 percent interest. Faculty received one-tenth of their salaries. Knox struggled to recover. After the Civil War, few veterans returned to college, and the financial crisis became so severe that President Curtis wrote a desperate letter to the Trustees exclaiming, “Tell us what to do!” They responded by making the all male preparatory Academy coeducational and by subdividing all the large rooms in Old Main to form classrooms for Academy students. Scores of women came to the Academy, and many eventually entered the College. The educational aspirations of women and the flexible spaces in Old Main saved Knox in 1867. When Chapel services moved to Alumni Hall in 1890, the College installed a third floor above the Chapel. The abandoned Chapel became a zoological museum on the second floor and a warren of Munchkin-like offices on the third. Little of the logic or utility of Ulricson’s original floor plan survived in the twentieth century except the grand staircase.

Saving a National Landmark

Old Main was gutted during its renovation in the early 1930s.

By 1927, after 70 years of continuous use, sporadic maintenance, and cosmetic repairs, Old Main tottered towards destruction, and dangerously so. The cavities between the wooden floor joists had been deafened with combustible materials that were tinder dry and highly flammable. The central staircase, originally designed to have students “ascend the arch” and take in vistas in all directions, was, by modern standards, a chimney. With only one exit from the third floor, Old Main had become a firetrap. The Trustees faced a major dilemma. Old Main must be renovated or destroyed.

The prospect of losing Old Main appalled Janet Greig Post, Knox’s first woman trustee and a graduate of the Class of 1894. She immediately took the chair of the newly formed Restoration Committee and vowed to save Old Main from the wrecking ball. Mrs. Post inaugurated and contributed to what became the Alumni Fund. She gave speeches, made contacts, and wrote letters and articles. Mrs. Post never tired of explaining the significance of saving a national landmark commemorating the fifth Lincoln-Douglas Debate. She told everyone who would listen that $200,000 must be found to save a priceless treasure. Old Main must not fall; however, by 1930, as the Great Depression deepened, the Trustees faced a harsh reality. The goal could not be met. Most alumni struggled to keep their lives going; faculty and staff salaries had been cut in half; students scrambled for odd jobs to make tuition payments. The Trustees had no choice but to suspend the campaign. Old Main seemed doomed.

Mrs. Post responded with a renewed dedication and an iron resolve. She embarked on her own solitary campaign. She arranged private visits with key alumni, and she tirelessly pursued philanthropists wherever they could be found. Her powers of persuasion must have been irresistible because, by 1932, she had raised all that the fund required. The College announced that the exterior of Old Main would be accurately and meticulously restored, including a return to Ulricson’s windows. The interior would be renovated to provide modern fireproof classrooms and offices. Restoration meant removing paint and replacing brick. New foundations, porches, and trim required five carloads of Indiana’s hardest Bedford limestone. Only the ashlar blocks at the entrances are the original Blue Cloud. Renovation meant completely gutting the interior in preparation for a steel frame and concrete floors. The northern pine floors and joists became paneling for the radiant Common Room.

As a new interior design appeared on the drafting tables, the restoration architects worried about the structural integrity of the building. Would removal of the interior brick walls, the floors, and their octagonal supports cause the exterior walls to collapse? Structural engineers arrived to make a careful study. They concluded that Ulricson’s original roof, tucked under the 1890 roof, would hold the building together as workman eviscerated the interior. The original roof, once again, proved its worth in 1969, when a fierce storm swept way the bell tower and most of the hip roof. The thick tin sheathing of the original roof saved the upper floors from water damage.

All Knox alumni, and indeed all Americans who value their national landmarks, owe a debt of gratitude to Mrs. Post and her fellow donors. She must be counted as one the noblest and most generous of Knox graduates. She deserves to be remembered as the protector and benefactor of Old Main. Many colleges have lost their venerable old buildings, and what replaces them is seldom memorable. At the rededication of Old Main on June 15, 1937, Illinois Governor Henry Horner spoke for past and future alumni when he said of Janet Greig Post, “…that lovely lady, who attracted the eyes of a nation in her loveliness and youth, presides over us by her heart.”

NYU of the Midwest

The original Old Main stairwell, which acted as a prairie belvedere.

One feature of the original building disappeared in 1937. Old Main had been built as prairie belvedere (a building with a view) and as a landmark for the city of Galesburg. It is still a landmark, but less of a belvedere. We have grown accustomed to tall buildings with vistas, so much so that today they are seldom described as belvederes. But that is precisely what Old Main was meant to be. It was the tallest building in town with impressive views of the village, the new railroads, and the surrounding prairies. By 1937 the stately elms of “The Way to Knox” and the arboretum in Standish Park obscured the view on the north. An astronomical observatory did the same on the south. In the renovation, the new staircases bypassed the central windows altogether.

In 1837, the year Ulricson arrived in Manhattan, the Presbyterians at New York University (NYU) completed their rectangular Tudor Gothic University Hall, also known as the “Chapel in the Sky.” University Hall was built as a belvedere and as a landmark for Washington Square. In 1857, Ulricson argued that Knox College must do the same on College Park, and he promptly produced plans and elevations for his version of the “Chapel in the Sky.” The Trustees agreed, and for a short time they saw their building and their College as the counterpart of NYU. Both were “new model” colleges organized around stock subscriptions and work for tuition plans, both had older Episcopalian rivals (Columbia University and Jubilee College, now a state park at Brimfield, Illinois), both had modern courses of study that included science, as well as Latin and Greek, and both had about the same number of graduates (15-20). Surprisingly, for several years after 1857, the Galesburg newspapers reported on the Commencement exercises at NYU. In past decades, Knox students heard their College described as the “Harvard of the Midwest.” From the perspective of architectural history, Knox is the “NYU of the Midwest.”

When NYU demolished their University Hall in 1890, Henry James, one of America’s greatest writers and a famous resident of Washington Square, excoriated city and university leaders as “lacking all civic piety.” By contrast in 1890, Old Main stepped into the twentieth century with a new roof, central steam heat to replace the coal stoves in the classrooms, a fresh coat of red paint, and plenty of civic piety from legions of admirers. In 1932, Knox saved what NYU lost.

One of a Kind

Old Main's architecture is an example of American Collegiate Gothic.

When the exterior restoration began in 1933, local and regional newspapers raised anew the question of style. The NYU connection had long been forgotten, and there was now a genuine puzzle about Old Main’s architectural antecedents. Some conjectured that Old Main was an imitation of the Clock Tower in London’s Hampton Court. Some thought it Norman. Others called it “mixed.” Still others pointed to Old Main’s balance, symmetry, and geometry as evidence of classical influences. The same debate had occurred on opening day. The Peoria Spectator described Old Main as “Gothic.” The editor of the Galesburg Free Democrat thought the bell tower too much like a “Greek Temple.” Perhaps the editor knew the bell tower derived from the Monument of Lysicrates in Athens. In 1992, when Knox’s loyal trustees and alumni gave the necessary funds to replace every defective brick on the exterior, the prevailing opinion held that Old Main is an example of American Collegiate Gothic. It is that, but with an important qualification.

The prominence of Old Main’s towers, battlements, and lancet windows, when viewed from the north or south, clearly signal the rectangular Gothic revival style. On the east and west, however, elements of the Greek revival style materialize in Old Main’s legible geometry, its rigorous proportions (marked by niches and lintels), its attempt to hide doors as windows (a motif taken from Palladio), and, most important, in its multi-storied windows that suggest Ionic columns. These features give Old Main a classical composure and order.

No other college building has so many dual aspects seamlessly and flawlessly integrated into one structure. This lovely synthesis of Gothic revival and Greek revival is strong evidence of Ulricson’s extraordinary talent. Moreover, it is even stronger evidence that Old Main, though unrecognized, deserves a special place in the history of American collegiate architecture. Many colleges have academic Gothic, but none are like Old Main. She is one of a kind.

After 150 years, we can be proud and grateful for the extraordinary legacy embodied in our oldest building. We can celebrate Old Main both as a Lincoln-Douglas Debate site and as an American architectural treasure. In another sense, what Old Main means to each one of us goes beyond sites and styles. Old Main is the symbol of a Knox education, and as the common possession of generations of students, faculty, staff, and friends, it will always hold a special place in our memories and in our hearts.

About the Author
R. Lance Factor is the George Appleton Lawrence Distinguished Service Professor of Philosophy and chair of the philosophy department. He has been a member of the Knox faculty since 1969. Just four years after arriving at Knox, he earned the Philip Green Wright-Lombard Prize for Distinguished Teaching, one of the College’s highest honors. Recently an anonymous donor endowed a chair of philosophy in his name. Professor Factor serves as director of the religious studies program and faculty advisor to the student chapter of Habitat for Humanity. He is currently writing a book on the architectural history of Old Main.