Pictured is a large classroom on the top floor of one of the wings of Alumni Hall, some time after 1960. Notice the crumbling wall on the right. The upkeep and renovations required to keep Alumni Hall going have been an ongoing issue since the first renovations in the 1930s. As early as 1929, students were noticing how old Alumni Hall was, as an editorial in The Knox Student said “As we look at Alumni Hall today, and wonder when we’ll be getting new buildings, perhaps we do not realize the true significance of the old red landmark.” A 1949 memo to Trustees stated that “[$16,615.34] is obviously a considerable amount to spend on a building as old as Alumni Hall.” These issues only worsened as time went on and costs were climbing, which probably explains the bit of broken wall in the classroom. These issues, as well as expanded classroom space in other buildings on campus, eventually led to the decision to “mothball” Alumni Hall.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Starting in 1949, the Knox College Bookstore called the basement of Alumni Hall home. It was housed in the lowest level of the east wing next to the Hearth, later called the Gizmo, until the mid-1960′s. This shop for students was one of the many uses of the versatile basement space through the years.
A worker from general contractor PJ Hoerr checks drawings during the installation of temporary steel scaffolding, visible in the background in the central section of Alumni Hall. A low-res composite panorama of this area is available on photosynth.net