UI faces decisions on campus icon Altgeld Hall

UI faces decisions on campus icon Altgeld Hall

URBANA – Altgeld Hall's rough-hewn Romanesque architecture has always made it stand out in a sea of green-roofed Georgian buildings on the University of Illinois campus.

As the oldest Urbana campus building that remains heavily used – by the math department, as well as a post office and the Quad's time-keeping bell tower – it could use a little updating, or maybe a lot.

That's what the UI will have to decide in the next year even as workers try to pinch pennies, with the state millions of dollars behind in reimbursements.

A $250,000 feasibility study is looking at how much the building can be restored to its 1896 glory, how much refurbishment is needed, and how to update the building for new technology. The report is due in February.

"We want this to be a state-of-the-art building that a top mathematics department deserves for the next 50 years," says math department head Sheldon Katz. "We want it to look that splendid again."

There are clearly challenges. The building is on 20 levels and is not in full compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some glass flooring has been replaced by plywood. Age and cigarette smoke have dulled the finish of much of the moulding and gold paint. The UI estimates the building needs $10 million to $15 million in deferred maintenance work alone.

Some work has been done recently to add safety devices such as fire alarms. Floors have been replaced, or in some cases, restored, as when workers recently tore up linoleum to find an unmarred, new-looking hardwood floor that had been hidden for half a century.

But classrooms for future mathematicians lack outlets for computers and other electronics. Altgeld's main lecture hall has chalkboards too small for energetic math professors, Katz said.

And then there's a new glass sign at the entrance that's not part of any plan. For reasons unknown, the old transom fell into splinters on the north steps of the building in April.

On the door itself, there's an antique UI logo that more closely resembles that of Indiana University. There's more of the old version signs on mosaic floors.

Anthony Battaglia, an architect with UI Capital Planning, says the jury is still out on how much work has to be done.

Battaglia said a report called "Restoring The Core," completed by a campus task force in 2001, took a hard look at Altgeld Hall.

Its verdict was unambiguous: "Altgeld Hall was given the highest historical significance rating on campus by the historical preservation commission, a rating that sets it apart from other all other buildings."

Even now, traces of former glory are being rediscovered.

Some of the more recent work has uncovered decorative motifs that may or may not be restored, including fleur-de-lis patterns that had been painted over on the ceiling.

The building shows many signs of its changing history. When it was built on the north end of the Quad, next to University Hall (replaced by the Illini Union), it served as the library for the entire campus. Hence its original name, Library Hall.

Architecture faculty members Nathan Clifford Ricker and James M. White designed the building as a modernist Romanesque, known to architects as "Richardsonian Romanesque. They placed the bell tower asymmetrically as a distinctive feature, Battaglia said.

But the interior is the stunner, a colonnaded rotunda with a stained-glass dome inspired by the Berlin Royal Polytechnicum, studied by Ricker, according to a proposal written for the feasibility study. The glass dome provided natural light for the library, but was replaced because it was difficult to maintain.

Ricker is responsible for many famous buildings in Champaign-Urbana, including Harker Hall, Kenney Gym and the Natural History Building.

Additions were made to Altgeld in 1914, 1919 and 1956, traces of which are visible in bricked up windows in the mathematics library. The building was renamed to Altgeld in 1941 to honor John Peter Altgeld, who had been governor during the planning and construction of the building.

The building was also home to the College of Law at one time, and paintings remain to show Supreme Court figures.

Local art and architecture expert Muriel "Mickey" Scheinman wrote her master's thesis on Altgeld Hall in 1969, and how deeply the governor was involved in decisions about the building. She found the original drawings in an archive.

In 1995, she revisited the hall for her book, "A Guide to Art at the University of Illinois."

In that book, Scheinman writes about the murals of Newton Alonzo Wells in the rotunda. His work celebrates the mission of the university; for instance, "The Sacred Wood of the Muses" celebrates literature and art at the university. Another mural, "Arcadia," is a tribute to the agriculture school, one of the first at the UI.

"I think the murals are terrific. But they need restoration," she said.

Scheinman is deeply interested in seeing the building restored. Altgeld, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, would have to be worked on in accordance with preservation standards, and she has offered to help.

"It's a wonderful building," she said.

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