Arts & Culture / Mosaic / April 22, 2010

Rebuilding lost history of Knox College

“The past is a part of the unwritten history of our lives. Who can solve the mysteries before us? And so with one long, last look at those quaint old walls nestled among the elms we start down the highway of life; and that road is endless. Somehow, there are those who never come back and their vacant places are empty forever. No one can fill them. A term, a year and new men come to fill the lists, and our very names are forgotten.”— The Gale of 1889, pg. 32

Knox students pass the ghosts of these structures on their way to class without knowing. As Knox College changed, buildings like West Bricks and the Astronomical Observatory that once shaped its history were forgotten as landscape and new structures reclaimed the ground where they once proudly stood. However, artifacts of Knox’s past can be found scattered throughout campus, if you know where to look.

The first building of Knox College, founded as Knox Manual Labor College on February 15, 1837, was the Academy building. The Academy building, completed in 1838 on the northeast corner of Main and Cherry Streets, was used as the foundation for the college mainly as a preparatory school and for church purposes. The Academy was discontinued in 1910.

Built in 1856 as the First Congregational Church, this building later was acquired by Knox College in the 1890s. It was renamed Beecher Chapel in honor of Edward Beecher, the first minister there and the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who famously depicted slavery in her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was used for musical presentations and daily chapel and was once the home of Knox’s Conservatory of Music. It was demolished in 1966. Seymour Library has a bench from Beecher Chapel near the front desk.

While Old Main is Knox’s most famous building still standing, it was known then as “Central College” when it was built in 1857. It was built between East College and West College, known as “East Bricks” and “West Bricks,” which were built in 1844 and 1845, respectively.

East and West Bricks served as dorms for men “and so of course it didn’t last long,” joked George Fitch in The Gale of 1909. According to The Gale of 1902, it also served as “centers of college activities, and college sports, and pranks.” The first floor of West Bricks was a dining hall and on the third was Adelphi Hall, home to the literary society by which it is named. Similarly, its rival, the Gnothatii literary society, occupied the third floor of East Bricks.

Whiting Hall, then known as the Seminary, was built in the same year as Old Main, serving as a dormitory for girls and contained the music department. It is now a home for the elderly.

Surprisingly, this liberal arts institution once had a military department, established in 1884 after “a law had been passed authorizing the detail of an army officer to certain institutions in the country.” The president of the college at the time, President Bateman, was a friend to Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert, who was then the Secretary of War.

Knox’s first gymnasium was built in 1877 by students themselves and then torn down in 1904 after falling into disuse. Its second gym, now called the Auxiliary Gym, was dedicated on Founder’s Day in 1908 and built to resemble Old Main. The athletic field was in the back of the Aux Gym.

In 1889 the Astronomical Observatory was completed south of Old Main. The Physics Department still has the original telescope from the Observatory.

West Bricks was demolished so that Alumni Hall could be built. President Benjamin Harrison laid the corner-stone of Alumni Hall in 1890. In a feature in The Gale of 1909 called “Seeing Knox Through a Megaphone,” George Fitch said, “The small riot in front [of Alumni Hall] is a debate between members of Adelphi and Gnothautii as to which literary society is the best.” In Alumni Hall, the west and east wings were the homes of the rival literary societies, frequently held intercollegiate debate competitions and contained Knox’s library. Over the years, Alumni Hall once contained a theatre, the R.O.T.C. rifle range, the art department, a chapel, a computer center and the Gizmo.

It was reported in The Knox Alumnus of May 1946 that the new student union, called The Hearth, opened. “The ground floor of Alumni Hall has been amazingly transformed into a modern and cheerful room. Here the colors are coeds and men of ‘Old Siwash’ can come anytime during the day to enjoy music, the company of their friends, and a food and drink menu including the usual hamburger, malted milkshake, coke, etc.”

Before it was home to languages and the social science departments and before the Science and Mathematics Center, George Davis Hall was known as George Davis Science Hall. It was built near where East Bricks used to be. It was used for chemistry, biology and physics and was said “to be second to none, outside of the universities, in the middle West,” according to Seventy-Five Significant Years: The Story of Knox College by Martha Farnham Webster.

Knox’s dining locations also have had a secret past. The Oak Room, then the men’s dining hall in Seymour Hall, now Seymour Union, once had a mural painted on a wall. Completed in 1941, the mural, called “The Offer of Education,” was painted by artist-in-residence George Rickey, art students and faculty. While Seymour was being remodeled in 1960, the painting was ripped from the wall. From an article about the restoration of the mural in the Spring 2010 issue of Knox Magazine, it was described as “devoted to the inspirational theme of the Western intellectual tradition flourishing at Knox College and depicts an illustrious grouping of great thinkers and scientists from the historical past extending enlightenment to Knox professors and students within a colorful, panoramic landscape.”

According to the Dining Locations page of the Knox website, the Gizmo Patio was “once used as an outdoor skating rink.”

Sheena Leano


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  • BARBARA HEATH

    TRYING TO FIND OUT MORE INFORMATION ON THE KNOX CONSERVATORY OF MUSIC. HAD AN UNCLE WHO GRADUATED FROM THE CONSERVATORY IN MARCH 1896 AND PLAYED HIS ORGAN CONCERT AT THAT TIME. HIS NAME WAS LEONARD JOHANN SMITH
    HE WAS FROM PAW PAW IL.

  • BARBARA HEATH

    MY GREAT UNCLE LEONARD WROTE A MUSICAL COMPOSITION CALLED “REVERIE ROMANTIQUE’ THAT HE PLAYED AT HIS ORGAN RECITAL in 1896 AND I AM TRYING TO FIND OUT IF THE COLLEGE HAS A COPY OF THAT PIECE
    ANY INFORMATION WOULD BE APPRECIATED
    THANK YOU
    BARBARA FABER HEATH



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