Altgeld Hall -- The Dawn of a New Century

The Auditorium

For 20 years, students of the Northern Illinois State Normal School spent the first hour of every day in the auditorium for what President John Williston Cook called the “general exercises.”

Those 60 minutes—maybe some songs, maybe some Bible readings, maybe the recitation of letters from former students — were, according to Earl W. Hayter’s NIU history “Education in Transition,” a “few brief moments to sing, to pray, to think, and to listen.”

And if students needed any confirmation of the hour’s purpose, they need only look above the stage at the Latin word “Veritas,” meaning truth.

In recent decades, however, it was difficult to make out that word, or many other details in the auditorium. Some time around the middle of the century, the rainbow of colors that originally adorned the room was covered in whitewash for the sake of easier maintenance.

Auditorium

The space remained in use as a lecture hall until 1975, when it was divided into a series of small studios for art students. The room was converted into an art gallery in 1991.

Before restoration work began in 1999, craftsmen carefully scraped through multiple layers of paint to find the original colors. Recreating that century-old color scheme took even longer, requiring an extensive pallet and the use of painstaking shading techniques. Those efforts included the recreation of the magnificent faux marble columns that flank the stage.

While the ornate plasterwork on the walls was in relatively good shape, the ceilings were badly damaged and had to be largely recreated using molds from what little survived of the original plaster. Some of the most ornate plasterwork in the room can be found over the stage where friezes depict Athena, the goddess of wisdom. Another symbol of wisdom, the owl, also is found there in a clever echo to the stone owls found over the building’s main portico.

Of all the rooms in Altgeld Hall, the auditorium today is most closely restored to its original appearance. It is now available for special events including lectures, concerts and banquets. It seats up to 500.