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Old Main made `new' many times

ROCK ISLAND -- When Swedish immigrants moved to the Quad-Cities more than 100 years ago, they dreamed of building a school to mirror the excellence achieved by the famed universities of Uppsala and Lund in Sweden.

Dispatch/Argus Photo By Terry Herbig

Old Main, in the heart of Augustana College's campus on 7th Avenue, Rock Island, is one of the most recognizable icons of the 137-year-old college. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

However, as much as they longed for reminders of their homeland, they also sought to build a new life in a new land.

So when Augustana College's founders decided in September 1882 to construct a new academic building to serve a growing student population, they chose a design that mimicked the style of the main building at Uppsala, according to college materials.

However, the design differed in one one way. Instead of the octagonal turret that tops Uppsala's main building, Augustana officials decided on a dome for their landmark. According to college archives, a farmer on the building committee demanded a dome to match their new nation's Capitol, statehouse and county-courthouse buildings.

For more than 100 years, the familiar dome of Augustana College's Old Main has served as a landmark. Years ago, it was a welcome sight to passengers who disembarked from trains at the nearby Rock Island railroad depot or sailed past on riverboats.

Through the years, visitors to Augustana have been able to find nearly any site on campus by asking for its proximity to Old Main.

It also has been at the center of Augustana's academic life. Virtually everything that has been taught at Augustana has been housed in Old Main at one time or another.

Even the college chapel once rested in the historic old building. Old Main also housed most of the affiliated operations of Augustana Theological Seminary and Augustana Academy.

``Old Main is the most notable building erected by Swedish immigrants to the United States, and architecturally it reflects Swedish university traditions,'' according to a description listed in a 1975 application to the National Register of Historic Places. ``It dominates the 100-acre campus and is a familiar landmark visible far up and down the valley.''

Old Main was added to the national register in 1976.

The four-story building was erected between 1884 and 1893 at a cost of roughly $75,000. It is made of buff-colored dolomite -- a stone similar in composition to limestone -- from quarries in LeClaire.

When construction stalled briefly in 1885 because of a money shortage, Rock Island businessman Philander Lathrop Cable donated $25,000 to get it restarted. A board meeting room in Old Main later was dubbed Cable Hall to commemorate the generous donor.

The library and museum were moved out of Old Main in 1910, followed by science-department laboratories. The seminary moved to its own building in 1923. The ornate chapel remained in Old Main until 1960, when that area of the second and third floors was renovated into classrooms and faculty offices.

A towering stained-glass window on the building's east side, and photographs of how it used to look, are visual reminders of the old chapel's presence and importance to the college community.

``Famous speakers and great artists have been on this platform,'' said the late Conrad Bergendoff, Augustana College's president emeritus, in a Founders' Day address in 1950. ``To the thousands of Augustana youth who have come in and gone out of the doors of this room, `chapel' brings back some of life's richest memories.

``No other single building in this history of our church has meant so much as this one; ... no other place has the memories of this chapel.''

Dr. Bergendoff continued by saying the names of the men and women who struggled to erect Old Main are unknown. ``But their work is done. It is to our own stewardship we need to look. Dare we plan on the scale they dared? Are we capable of the persistence, the devotion, the sacrifice that they exhibited?''

Several major remodeling and renovation projects have been done over the years. Chimes were installed in 1953 and were upgraded last year. A three-phase construction project was executed from 1959 to 1961 on recommendation of the city fire marshal, and other minor modifications were made in 1973.

Further remodeling occurred from 1978 to 1980, including a $107,565 window-replacement project and installation of new heating controls, a sprinkler system and a new roof.

``After over a century of use, Old Main remained one of the most important classroom buildings, primarily for subjects in the humanities,'' college materials state. ``Yet it was one of the few major buildings which by 1991 had not been air conditioned.''

A financial campaign helped raise enough money to air-condition Old Main, the costliest project ever at the historic landmark. The air-conditioning contract was $441,172, with another $193,632 in related general construction projects.

Workers now are completing a project to upgrade Old Main for technology. Religion and ethics professor Dan Lee, whose office is in the historic structure, said the technology upgrade is symbolic, in a way.

``What we have is a century-old building being outfitted to serve students for the next 100 years,'' he said. ``It shows we recognize the importance of the traditions of life, but, at the same time, we prepare for the future.''

-- By Leon Lagerstam (January 22, 1998)

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