Removal of the original plaster ceiling in the central auditorium enables this almost surreal view that combines wood and brick from 1890, when Alumni Hall was built, with modern structural steel beams and scaffolding, erected during the year-long renovation project.
Recent photos posted on this blog have been showing the dismantling of the balcony and ceiling in Alumni Hall — both essential parts of the building during its time as Knox’s theatre.
The same central part between the two literary society buildings that once served as a library was also the College’s theatre from 1928, when the library collection was moved to Seymour Library, until 1965, when the Ford Center for Fine Arts opened.
The photo above is of a play put on in 1930 called Tommy.
Once the books were removed, the seats were restored to the theatre. The floor had a capacity of 625 people, and the balcony held 225 people. The quiet library changed to a resonant theatre with the help of some new paint and acoustic tiles. A 1929 issue of The Knox Student reported on the space’s new “harmonious yellow tint” and “side lights of attractive decorative nature.”
Future renovations, mostly safety-based, took place later. The theatre was prone to fires, and there was a rewiring in 1948 and a major overhaul in 1963. A memo from 1962 reports a careless student lit some drapes on fire. And the memo writer was not pleased: “May I point out this is our second experience with a fire that could’ve been dangerous. The third time, we may not be so lucky.”
The 1963 renovation added a state-of-the-art light board, four dressing rooms, a sewing room, extra closet areas for costumes, a light room, and a makeup room, as well as fire-safety measures.
When the Center for Fine Arts was constructed, Harbach Theatre became the main stage for the College’s productions, although the stage and seating in Alumni Hall continued to be used as a general-purpose meeting area and alternate theatre.
The stars of the Alumni Hall stage were immortalized by the graffiti that each cast member left after a show along the inside walls of the theatre and on the ceiling above the catwalk. Graffiti left over the years can be seen in this video.
As seen in recent construction update shots, the center hall of Alumni Hall is a large area with a stage and space for seats — an auditorium. It was originally intended to be a chapel, but over its tenure thus far, it has also been an auditorium, a theatre, and a library.
The original Knox College library was housed in Old Main, while Alumni Hall’s center hall was serving as a chapel. After Beecher Chapel was acquired by the school and the need for a larger library was realized, the books were moved to Alumni Hall in 1909.
This wasn’t the first time a library was in Alumni Hall. Both literary societies, Adelphi and Gnothautii, had separate libraries on their sides, starting sometime around 1892. Once the College’s library was moved to Alumni Hall, the literary societies combined their books and contributed to the centralized collection.
The library featured not only books, but two large tapestries from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. They framed the stage, as seen in the photo below.
Flooring was laid down from the lobby to the stage to level out the slope intended for auditorium seating. Two staircases were installed to reach from the bottom floor to the top balcony where Dr. Elder, the librarian, had an office and additional stacks were housed.
The center hall of Alumni Hall remained this way until the completion of Seymour Library, which still houses Knox’s collection of books and library materials, in 1928.
As seen in the photo above, books lined the back walls of the lower level, and tables, chairs, and even statues decorated the area. It wasn’t intended to look makeshift, although it was a temporary solution. From the convincing looks of it, it probably fooled a few students between 1909 and 1928 who would’ve never known it was an auditorium space.