Old chair reveals how Altgeld Hall was once the campus seat

Architects discover items hinting at the landmark building's presidential past
Historical photo with current photo inset
With help from an archival photo, an architect determined that an existing chair (lower left) in a professor's office in Altgeld Hall is an original from the office of former U of I President Andrew Draper, who worked there from 1897-1904. (Photos courtesy of Bailey Edward.)

When you spend a year and a half immersed in a place, as Karla Smalley has in Altgeld Hall, you start to develop a sense for the significant details. One day not long ago the architect was drawn to an old chair on the building’s third floor that seemed out of place, yet oddly familiar.

Smalley is an associate principal and architect at Bailey Edward, a firm hired by campus to help renovate Altgeld Hall while preserving the building’s colorful history.  Her work is part of the Altgeld and Illini Hall Project, which was launched to renovate Altgeld Hall and replace its neighbor across Wright Street with a new building to improve and modernize spaces in data science and other mathematical sciences.

Smalley was studying the building’s decorative paint and windows when it occurred to her where she’d seen that old leather chair: the historical archives.

“When you look at those photos for a year and a half, they sort of become engrained in your mind,” she said. So she went back to the archival photos, and sure enough, there was the chair in black and white, in the office of former University of Illinois President Andrew Draper, who’d served from 1894-1904.

An ornate fireplace in the undergraduate office of the Department of Mathematics hints at the office's previous use as the presidential suite. (Photo courtesy of the Department of Mathematics.)

Smalley determined that the leather chair was an original feature of the presidential office suite when it was located in the then-new Altgeld Hall (then called the University Library), which opened in 1897. There were other chairs like it in historical photos, but this was the only one that remains in the building. Today it sits next to a professor’s desk in what used to be the president’s private office.

The old chair is a clue to Altgeld Hall’s past. In the building’s early days it functioned not as just the campus library but the center of university operations. Along with the presidential suite, the building housed operations for the Board of Trustees, bursar, and registrar, among others.

Today, the space where Smalley found the chair—located on the north side of the building facing the Alma Mater—is the undergraduate office for the Department of Mathematics. The former greeting area for the president’s office is still a greeting area, but instead of officials and politicians, it’s the welcome point for students looking for help and advising.  

In the same space along that north side is the Board of Trustees’ former waiting room, now occupied by academic advisors. Part of the board’s former meeting room is now occupied by Alison Champion, associate director of undergraduate studies.

The history of the space isn’t lost on its current occupants. Champion said that they enjoy some impressive architectural features that aren’t typical in a normal office.

Grandfather clock
The discovery of the former president's chair sparked interest in other items that were located in Altgeld Hall when it opened in 1897. One of them is this grandfather clock, still located on the first floor. (Photo courtesy of Bailey Edward.)

“The most wonderful features of our space include a lovely set of window seats in (Room) 313, which is where students wait before their advisor appointments in non-COVID times, inside the area that looks like a smaller tower on the outside of Altgeld,” she said. “(There are) two fireplaces with ornate wood coverings—but they’re blocked off to keep out the bat visitor that we had once—and of course the view of the Alma Mater. The fireplaces are the real showpiece.”

According to historical documents, what’s now the undergraduate office served as the presidential suite from 1897 through the early 1900s. After President Draper departed in 1904, the space was occupied by President Edmund James (who served from 1904-1920). By 1915, James—along with the Board of Trustrees, registrar, and other administrators—had relocated to what’s now Henry Administration Building.

In all, Altgeld Hall has undergone four renovations (with the fifth one getting underway) and shifted in purpose from the library and administration building to the School of Law and the Department of Mathematics. And yet that chair and other furniture items around the building have remained in place. Smalley, for example, located a grandfather clock, a library table, and several paintings and photos that were present when the building opened in 1897.

“It’s almost been like a treasure hunt,” Smalley said, of her search for original items.

As for the old chair itself, it sits in the office of Randy McCarthy, professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Mathematics. He acquired it back in 2005 from the department chair—the head of the department, that is—who’d had it since at least 1994. The chair’s journey before that is a mystery, though it currently sits just a few feet from where it first appeared in historical photos.  McCarthy knows that the original president’s desk that accompanied the chair is now in Henry Administration Building.

Andrew Draper's office
The original archive photo of Andrew Draper's office in Altgeld Hall in 1897.  (Bailey Edward.)

McCarthy has long been intrigued by the building’s history, ever since he heard that a colleague worked in an office that still had the bursar’s old money safe.  Years ago he learned the history of his own office from a historian, and now McCarthy has his students sit in the chair when they come in for advising.

Occasionally, McCarthy said, he humors them with the story behind the chair and his own office. Every other Friday some 120 years ago, he said, as faculty and staff lined up in the hallway to be paid at the bursar’s office, the president would open the door of his office to meet them.

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Dave Evensen