A look inside the oldest buildings on campus

By Tahereh Rahimi, Staff Reporter

SIU, once one building small, has welcomed many more since its opening. However, Altgeld Hall remains the oldest building on SIU’s campus. 

The castle-like building built 123 years ago is near the edge of South Illinois Avenue and Mill Street. The magnificent mansion is the home of the music department now.

The building, dedicated in 1896, has not always been the home of SIU’s young musicians. According to Betty Mitchell in Southern Illinois University: A Pictorial History, at the time known as “Old Science,” it became the home to the science library and physics, chemistry and biological sciences, as well as a big gymnasium.

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In the book Carbondale: A Pictorial History, Betty Mitchell said Harvey William Everest, the third president of SIU, was responsible for building Altgeld Hall.

“He put forward a building program,” she said. 

According to Mitchell, Altgeld Hall was named after John P. Altgeld, Illinois’ governor in 1896, who supported the program.

Although Altgeld Hall is now the oldest remaining building on campus, it was the second building constructed at SIU.

The Old Main Building was the oldest building once erected at SIU.

Mitchell said the contract for the first building was awarded in 1869, but for different reasons the building was not completed until 1874.

She said the university was inaugurated as Southern Illinois Normal University at the time. SINU opened in 1874 as a single-building teachers college. 

John Jackson, the editor of Southern Illinois University at 150 Years, said the first Old Main Building was the mere building of SINU.  

“There may have been smaller buildings that were auxiliary operations,” he said, “but that was the central building because we really did not have the first class of students until 1874.”

At the time the first Old Main Building was built, SINU had 52 students.

“So, they didn’t need all that much base,” Jackson said.

The first Old Main Building had been constructed near where Davies Gymnasium is located now. 

However, the first building erected on the campus did not last long. About ten years after classes began, the first Old Main Building burned down.

Mitchell said on the evening the significant building fell, the Carbondale mayor called a meeting at the town’s opera house with the residents of the city.

“Contributions of $1,800 were raised that night and another $5,000 within a week to construct a temporary building,” she said. “The rebuilding began [in the same spot] in 1885 and was dedicated in 1887.

The new Old Main Building was established 13 years after SINU launched in Carbondale. A temporary frame building had one floor and it was the center of the campus for almost two years before the new Old Main was erected.

It was not only the historic centerpiece of the university’s campus, but the symbol of the university for more than 80 years. It was the home to offices for the English and history departments, foreign languages teaching labs, classrooms and the University Museum, as well.

Old Main was destroyed by a fire, again, on June 8, 1969. It was burned down by an arsonist who is still unknown. Though according to Jackson, in spite of lots of speculation, authorities at that time or later would not have charged anyone.

“The Old Main was a very substantial building, and it was a huge loss when it burned down,” he said. “This building was still here when I came to SIU, 50 years ago.”

 The second Old Main was at the heart of an area Jackson called “a historical site.”

This area is bound from the east by Southern Illinois Avenue, from the north by Quigley Hall, from the south by the Student Services Building and from the west by Faner Hall.

Wheeler Hall, built next to Altgeld Hall, was the third major campus building, and now the second oldest building on campus. It was dedicated in 1904 and was the main library until 1956, when Morris Library was built.

Allyn Hall, 1908; Anthony Hall, 1913; Shryock Auditorium, 1918; Davies Gymnasium, 1925; and Parkinson Laboratory, 1928 are some of the other old buildings located alongside Altgeld Hall and Wheeler Hall.

The next question that may come to mind is why they first built the Old Main and later the rest of the buildings at this location next to South Illinois Avenue?

Jackson said he believes one reason was that this area was close to the edge of downtown Carbondale and would have been very handy for the students and staff who had to live out of residency facilities to commute.

“They rented rooms with Carbondale people,” he said. “It has been so easy for them to walk to the location. The other part was that someone donated some land there. The current property of the university has gradually been obtained in different periods.”

It is now 150 years after SIU was founded, and 61 years after Southern Illinois Normal University changed the name to Southern Illinois University. 

(See more: Southern Illinois University: 150 Years and counting).

Jackson said he believes it is important for the new students to know about the history of the campus they study in. 

“To me, it is a little like a family history that becomes a narrative that is part of your identity,” he said.

Asking historical questions like what the university was like and where traditions, limitations and reputations come from help to understand the promises and risks of both the present and the future.

“You can appreciate the possibilities for the future if you understand how the past conditions were,” he said. 

Staff Reporter Tahereh Rahimi can be reached at [email protected].

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