Arts & Culture / Mosaic / January 28, 2010

Knox’s ‘Chapel in the Sky’

Old Main sits at a focal point on the Knox College campus. It is a point of convergence for both sight and significance, housing important administration offices and services. The iconic Old Main bell tower can be seen from most locations around campus. With its striking architecture and history, it is interesting to note that little is known about the man who actually built the first academic building for the newly founded Knox College back in the 1830’s. How Swedish architect Charles Ulricson came to the United States and the significance he imbued into the construction is the subject of a new book by Professor Lance Factor, entitled “Chapel in the Sky: Knox College’s Old Main and Its Masonic Architect.”

“My interest in the building itself came first,” Factor said. “I was interested in the niches.”

The niches found on many flat surfaces and the corners of the building are just one of many unique architectural features installed by Ulricson. But upon further investigation of this little-known architect, Factor discovered that there was more than just unique style in the building’s design.

“Ulricson had built the first Masonic lodge in Peoria,” Factor said. “That got my attention.”

In 2006, Factor procured a ladder and physically measured many of Old Main’s primary dimensions. The analysis of those led to some startling conclusions.

“Every aspect of the building converts to cubits, a number with Masonic significance,” Factor said. “The cubit was supposedly used in the construction of King Solomon’s temple, and equals approximately 14.4 inches.”

The factor that makes these numerical significances interesting is the fervent anti-Masonic nature of the founding trustees. Most of them were originally from the Mohawk Valley in New York, where the original Anti-Masonic political party had strong roots.

“There’s a great human story here, which I try to tell,” Factor said.

Why did Ulricson choose to risk his career and possibly his life over a small newly founded college’s construction? Perhaps he believed in the power of these symbols and measurements. As it is, all even the most learned scholars can do is speculate.

“You can’t find anything where [Ulricson] said, ‘I did this, this is Masonic.’ It is in looking at the measurements and the ratios that you discover the true significance,” Factor said. “We have a great story here.”

Andrew Polk


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