Saturday, June 11, 2011
For nearly a century, Illinois State University’s oldest and largest building loomed over the campus grounds and town environs. It was the Watterson Towers of its day, though instead of brutalist concrete, Old Main offered a more pleasing arrangement of brick and Italianate woodwork.
Dedicated in 1861, the administration and classroom building was originally known as Normal Hall because, back then, ISU was called Normal University. (The word “normal” referred to an institution dedicated to teacher training.)
The substantial 3½ story brick building was topped with a tall dome/clock tower, and on a clear day it could be seen for miles. The architect, Gurdon P. Randall of Chicago, was to design school buildings throughout the Midwest, from Northwestern University in Evanston to Minnesota State Normal School in Wenona.
Visible from the junction of two railroads — the St. Louis, Alton & Chicago (now Union Pacific/Amtrak) and the Illinois Central (now Constitution Trail) — Normal Hall served symbolic as well as pedagogical purposes. Educator William H. Powell envisioned the high-profile building as “a watch tower of liberty” and “an impregnable fortress, against which the wild waves of ignorance and tyranny might eternally beat in vain.”
Construction began in the summer of 1857, but before long work came to a halt due to a severe economic downtown (or “Panic,” as they were once called). In the meantime, under the leadership of Normal President Charles Hovey, classes were held at Major’s Hall in downtown Bloomington.
Normal Hall was paid for by a convoluted scheme involving local residents guaranteeing McLean County’s pledge of $70,000 from the sale of what were called “swamp lands,” the term for undrained prairie.
The university board held good promissory notes “in plenty,” reported The Weekly Pantagraph, though converting these into cold hard cash for wages and building materials “required infinite trading, off-setting and ‘fixing’ of all sorts.” ISU Professor Emeritus John Freed, who wrote the definitive history of the university, called the effort to raise funds “a story of such skullduggery that the perpetrators, most notably Hovey, would be indicted today on numerous counts.”
J.H. Burnham, an early student of “The Normal,” remembered visiting the abandoned construction site and the unfinished stone foundation in the spring of 1858. “All around us was nothing but an apparent wreck,” he wrote. “There were no workmen about, and we heard of no plans for finishing the structure.”
Construction eventually resumed, and on Jan. 24, 1861, 3½ years after ground was broken, Normal Hall was dedicated before a gathering of Springfield big shots and their families.
In addition to celebrating the long-delayed completion of the building, university officials used the ceremony to woo Gov. Richard Yates and members of the state legislature into taking on the school’s burdensome debt.
Arriving via the St. Louis, Alton & Chicago Railroad, a delegation of lawmakers received a tour of the magnificent building. The first floor housed the model school (what are today Metcalf and University High), while the second included eight classrooms, two lecture halls and a space that could accommodate 300 students. The top floor held an even larger assembly room, the library and space for music instruction.
In the early afternoon, the estimated 500 to 700 visitors “partook” of a cold lunch, and afterward, an even larger crowd gathered for dedicatory exercises, which included student recitations, mathematic drills and music performances.
Many in the audience then removed to downtown Bloomington for a banquet and ball. During the latter soiree, the crowd became so large “as to leave very little room for the dancers to express themselves; and the ‘Poetry of Motion’ was necessarily quite prose-like,” commented The Pantagraph. It was said that more than one tipsy lawmaker was unable to make the midnight special back to Springfield.
Naturally, this being Illinois, the wining and dining succeeded and the state legislature assumed responsibility for the school’s $65,000 in unpaid bills.
Old Main remained the center of campus life well into the 20th century. Yet by 1946, concerns of the structural integrity kind led to the removal of the dome and entire third floor. A new roof was then placed over the second story, and the building continued to welcome students, though in a somewhat diminished state.
On July 17, 1958, the wrecking ball took care of the rest. Today, a memorial to Old Main featuring a bell from the beloved building can be found on the north end of the ISU