It might surprise some people to learn that the most versatile and widely used part of Alumni Hall was not the classrooms or the theatre, but the basement.
An April 1890 issue of the Coup d’Etat, a student newspaper, described the basement as intended to be used as an armory and a space for cadets for “company evolutions in winter and inclement weather.” The room also housed bathrooms and lockers, as well as a chemical laboratory.
Although it appears its use was multipurpose from the beginning, the builders likely didn’t expect the many transformations the basement would see in future years. The lowest level of Alumni Hall has served as an indoor track, the Gizmo, a computer center, the mailroom, the gymnasium, the bookstore, a shooting range, and home to a few administrative offices. The basement was also the last part of the building to remain open and in use before all of Alumni Hall closed.
The photo above is from the basement’s tenure as the school’s indoor track, taken in 1923. This track was state-of-the-art when it was constructed in the 1920s, as no other school in the area had one like it. The 1927 Knox Alumnus described how the construction of the track, conducted by students and led by the track coach, “required the removal of several supporting posts in the basement.” The pits required for field sports like pole vaulting, shot put, and high jump were dug into the floor of the basement due to the low ceilings.
The track stayed open until around 1940, and by 1946, the Hearth was opened in the east wing of the basement and the bookstore next to it followed a few years later.
Anyone who has ever raised funds knows that every little bit helps. Documents like these that trace the process of fundraising for the original construction of Alumni Hall take that idea to a new level, with little pledges here and there, like this $5 one. We hope Lizzie Freer paid on time! Otherwise, her pledge is 121 years overdue.
The above photo is a shot of a class taught by Professor Vasili “Bill” Fiedorow in Alumni Hall. Fiedorow taught Russian and French at Knox for more than 30 years, from 1972 until his retirement in 2005. Fiedorow passed away in September 2013.
Around the time he started teaching at Knox was when the Modern Languages department was located in Alumni Hall. It remained there until the building’s closing, when it then moved to George Davis Hall.
We don’t have a date for this photograph, but judging from the hair styles on these modern languages students, can we agree that it seems safe to place it somewhere in the late 1970s or early 1980s?
One of the most notorious uses of the basement was for a firing range. As students saw on our tour of the basement, there are still bullet holes that can be seen in the walls where the targets were placed. The rifle range is not the only part of Alumni Hall’s military history, though. Alumni Hall has served the campus during both World Wars as an important resource for soldiers.
From 1918 to 1919, during the first World War, the east wing was designated as the YMCA “Hut” under the direction of two secretaries appointed by the War Department. Classrooms that formerly served the Philosophy and Economics departments were transformed into lecture rooms for the 250-soldier unit at Knox. The 1920 Gale states that the Gale offices were turned into a canteen. The Hut served the campus for three months, and was especially useful as a clinic when the 1918 influenza pandemic hit campus. The Gale also recalls that a lot of entertainment took place at the Hut for soldiers: “Stunts were put on at the Hut at the regular times by men of the unit; boxing matches and sings were held; “World Forum” lectures were arranged for every Thursday night. The Hut was the best place at Knox for men of the unit to feel the Knox spirit, and the college atmosphere as it should be.”
In 1943, during World War II, the Headquarters of the Air Force Training Detachment were housed in Alumni Hall. College campuses were utilized for the recruitment and training of soldiers. In 1944, the Army Specialized Training Unit was also housed in Alumni Hall.
Alumni Hall was also the home of Knox’s ROTC program until it was discontinued in 1990.
Much of this blog has been about current construction updates. Had it existed during the original construction of the building, this is what readers likely would’ve seen. This is a photo of the original construction of Alumni Hall, looking towards the south side. And to give you a sense of where this was taken, it appears that the photographer stood where Seymour Hall is now located.
In 1977, it was apparent action needed to be taken regarding the ailing Alumni Hall. Its closing seemed imminent, and one of the main controversies about that decision was the elimination of the campus chapel. The interdenominational chapel was located in the upper west wing of Alumni Hall. It held some formal services and group meetings, but was also open as an area for personal religious practice. The chapel was opened in 1972 as the first religious space on campus since services were discontinued at Beecher Chapel in the 1950’s.
Students were worried about the closing of Alumni Hall because there would be nowhere to meet for prayer, as the chapel was the only designated religious space on campus. The wider community became involved in the discussion about the chapel. The Galesburg Post issued an editorial in November 1977, stating that “The Galesburg Post has been urging Knox College to use the central interior of Alumni Hall for a chapel available to all faiths, and for student assemblies, with other space in the 1890 building made available for rental to community organizations.”
The Galesburg Post also reported how members of the Newman Club, the Catholic group on campus, were “forced to meet in the Gizmo as nickels and dimes clinked in the machines as they held their mass.”
The chapel was closed with the rest of the building by 1980, and although community groups feared a religious presence might disappear from the College, there are still faith groups active on the campus today.
One of the most memorable uses of the basement of Alumni Hall was as the student snack bar. Originally called The Hearth, one of its namesake fireplaces is pictured at the rear of this photo. Students, like this group from the mid 1950’s, would gather to study and enjoy snacks in the basement around the hearth. At the time of our tour for students, the pictured hearth was still standing in the basement space of Alumni Hall.
Lance Factor, George Appleton Lawrence Distinguished Service Professor of Philosophy, discusses the significance of literary societies in the building of Alumni Hall.
As we start to experience warmer April days, here’s a hopeful shot of two classmates walking on the south side of Alumni Hall near the Lombard bell during good weather. This shot is dated around 1960, which is easy to see given the outfits and hair worn by these students.
The basement of Alumni Hall held auxiliary offices since 1950, but it was in 1977 that the Offices of Alumni Affairs, Development and Public Affairs were housed permanently in the basement. This is an example of what those offices looked like. Astute viewers will notice in the left side of this image that the brick structure is the old fireplace from when the space served as The Hearth. The transformed Alumni Hall will be home to many administrative offices once construction is completed.