Rise to the Challenge - Build Your Own Old Main

Knox College, Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and Illinois Historic Preservation Agency unveil paper model kit; author reveals Old Main's secret Masonic proportions

May 28, 2009

Anyone who can cut, fold and glue paper can now make an accurate scale model of one of the state's most historic buildings -- Knox College's Old Main -- and according to a new book, also one of the state's most mysterious buildings.

Officials from Knox, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and the Illinois Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, unveiled a model kit of Knox's Old Main on Wednesday, May 27 on the Knox campus in Galesburg. It is the latest in the series "Build Your Own Lincoln Sites," which includes the Old State Capitol and two other Lincoln-related historic buildings. Plans call for five more historic site kits to be released this year.

The kits, in the form of free web downloads, include directions on how to print and assemble the scale-model walls and other components.

Carol Dyson, senior preservation architect at the IHPA, and Kay Smith, executive director of the Lincoln Bincentennial Commission, presented a completed model of Old Main to Knox President Roger Taylor. The ceremony was held at Old Main -- a National Historic Landmark and the only original building that remains from the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas Debates.

The "Build Your Own Old Main" Challenge
At the same time, Knox officials anounced the "Build Your Own Old Main" Challenge, inviting people to assemble models of Old Main using the files developed by the IHPA and Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

"With the launch of these models, Knox College invites the community to celebrate the Lincoln Bicentennial with us, and explore the intricacies of Old Main's architecture," said Karrie Heartlein, director of public relations at Knox. "Simply download a model from the website, complete the construction, and bring the completed model to campus in October."

The challenge has categories for both individuals and school classes in several age groups.

Prizes will include copies of the children's book "Abraham Lincoln: A Prairie Life," by Elizabeth Van Steenwyck; and the new edition of the transcripts of the Lincoln Douglas Debates, edited by Knox College scholars Rodney Davis and Douglas Wilson for the Lincoln Studies Center Publication Series.

Guidelines for the "Build Your Own Old Main" Challenge are posted on the Knox College website at www.knox.edu/oldmainmodel.xml

Old Main's Masonic Mysteries
Completed in 1857, Old Main is one of the few surviving examples of the unique and intriguing style of architect Charles Ulricson. At the model presentation ceremony, Lance Factor, George A. Lawrence Distinguished Service Professor of Philosophy at Knox, discussed "Chapel in the Sky," his forthcoming book about Ulricson and Old Main.

According to Factor, Ulricson incorporated a number of mathematical ratios important in Masonic lore into Old Main's proportions and architectural details. But Ulricson never revealed those design elements to College officials at the time, who considered Freemasonry a dangerous cult, Factor said in remarks at the ceremony.

"Ulricson was a Mason who believed in 'alchemical architecture,' or 'esoteric geometry,' a special talisman that had magical powers and provides protection for all who enter into the building," Factor said. "This is what we call 'magical thinking' in our modern age, and we're not supposed to believe in it. But certainly Ulricson did, and Ithiel Town, his teacher, was deep into it. Town amassed a library of some 5,000 volumes on occult and esoteric philosophy."

Prior to working on Old Main, Ulricson, an immigrant from Sweden, worked for the New York architectural firm Town and Davis, and designed several buildings in Peoria, Illinois.

After Knox's trustees approved old Main's design, Ulricson -- who also served as the general contractor for the project -- worked without supervision, Factor said. Had the trustees known of Ulricson's beliefs and designs, "they would have been horrified," he said. "They were deeply anti-Masonic, and prohibited all fraternities and secret societies. They would have looked at this geometry as geomancy, a form of 'black magic' that had no place at all at a Protestant school like Knox College."

Old Main is one of the few surviving examples of Ulricson's work, Factor said. Others include Whiting Hall, a former college residence and now an apartment building near the Knox campus; and the Augustana Chapel in Andover, Illinois.

For the design of Old Main, Knox trustees directed Ulricson only that they wanted "a plain style," Factor told the audience at the ceremony. "I leave it up to you to decide whether it's plain or very well camouflaged." Factor's book is scheduled for release later this year from Northern Illinois University Press.

Kay Smith, Roger Taylor, Carol Dyson, Lance Factor
Kay Smith, Roger Taylor, Carol Dyson and Lance Factor display model of Old Main; below, Factor discusses Old Main's architecture.
Lance Factor