Strength, Resilience, and Endurance: Old Main at 150
By Rodney O. Davis, Szold Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of History
Old Main is 150 years old! Like any building, or anything else that has survived a century-and-a-half, it has undergone alteration and change, occasional crises, even threats to its very existence, yet it remains a vital and central presence on the Knox College campus. With its signature bell tower, Old Main is a familiar Galesburg icon. Its representation signifies Knox College both to the thousands who have merely seen it or passed through its doors and to those who have become members of the Knox community. The bell has called generations of students to class, and, after a more than 20-year silence, now rings again. The building was saved from what would have been inevitable fiery destruction by the restoration and fireproofing in the 1930s that did away with its dangerously oil-soaked wooden floors and lethally chimney-like central stairway. It has survived a wind and rain storm that peeled its roof back from east to west like the top of a tin can, leaving the bell tower on the ground just short of Alumni Hall. Over the years, Old Main has housed a chapel, scientific laboratories, and the college library, in addition to its current complement of faculty and administrative offices and classrooms. In celebrating the sesquicentennial of the oldest building on the Knox College campus, we also celebrate the strength, resilience, and endurance of the College itself.
Old Main was commissioned by the College trustees in the 1850s to serve as the permanent center of what they were confident would be a permanent institution. And those trustees also concluded that they could afford a building signifying not merely permanence, but which would also be a thing of beauty rather than one of mere utility, however scarce architectural beauty was elsewhere in the rough, false-fronted, jerry-built Galesburg of 1857. At the time it was constructed, the building was not "Old Main," of course; it was called the "Main College" building. After the construction of Alumni Hall, it became the "Old College" building. The current usage probably dates from the turn of the 20th century, and one wonders whether "Old Main" is now called "old" out of affection or merely as a reflection of its venerability.
From its earliest conception, Old Main was construed to be central to the campus, located as it was between utterly unadorned, utilitarian, and now, thankfully, long-vanished East and West Bricks which had preceded it. And though Old Main remains what John Huston Finley called the physical heart of Knox College, it is certainly not the gateway to Knox; we have no gateway for our campus really has no bounds; it is open on all sides and as Pericles said of his beloved Athens, it is open to all. Yet Old Main so dominates other campus and nearby structures that architectural features originally peculiar to it are repeated on George Davis and Seymour Halls, the Auxiliary Gym, and Galesburg's Public Safety Building across Standish Park to the northwest. Old Main is the campus building most frequented by visitors from outside the community, from the likes of sightseers and the vendors of goods, services, and advice, to such worthies as Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, and Carl Sandburg, and more recently Barack Obama, Stephen Colbert, and William Jefferson Clinton.
Undoubtedly the most remarkable single event to have occurred at Old Main was the fifth Lincoln-Douglas Debate on October 7, 1858, when the building was scarcely a year old. We continue to take pride in the fact that Old Main is the only structure now standing that is associated with that series of political meetings, and we commemorate the Galesburg debate with the bas-reliefs of Lincoln and Douglas at the east entrance of the building, the plaques at the north entrance, the Seymour painting, and the McClure's Magazine illustration inside on the first floor, and the window in the President's office, through which Abraham Lincoln passed through college. But to commemorate that event is not our purpose in 2007; we'll hear enough about that next year when we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Galesburg debate. What we now commemorate instead is the endurance of Old Main over the past 150 years, and we assert our confidence in its future existence as a symbol of the permanence of Knox College. In that regard, of far greater significance than even a Lincoln-Douglas Debate, is the role of this handsome building in the interaction among thousands and thousands of learners that has taken place within it over that time.