Problems with Alumni Hall

by Bill Monson

One of the problems with Alumni Hall at Knox College was how to use the building efficiently as the campus evolved around it. Its architecture was no help.

Take that imposing set of steps which front on South Street in the building's center.

They look great, but they were rarely used in my day (1953-57). Coming out of the big doors at the top presented a breath-taking view of Standish Park -- but the steps were so steep that only a mountain climber could enjoy them. Sure, there were rails to help you, but the ascent was agonizing and the descent heart-stopping.

Nearly everyone used the shorter steps on either end. The eastern flight got you into a hallway which had interior steps that led to a hallway behind the theater. A stairway led to the second floor. The Art Department was straight ahead.

The western entrance was a mirror image: steps to the hallway behind the theater, a staircase which climbed to a lecture room on the second floor, and faculty offices straight ahead.

Inside the center section where the theater was, there was yet another flight of stairs which led up from the cross-building hallway to the theater balcony. A wall curved around behind the theater itself with an office for Speech and Theater Arts tucked in opposite the stairs. A large Chinese tapestry hung on the landing of the stairs. (What its Chinese letters said I was never able to learn.)

Backstage on either side of the curved cyclorama wall were doors which led onto landings. These could be used either to go out onto a wooden fire escape to the ground (and the Gizmo) or to reach the basement, which was partially below ground level. I also seem to remember a wooden fire escape coming down the west side of the building from the lecture hall on the second floor.

When the stage curtain was open and the cyclorama in view, there was no way for an actor to cross the stage unseen. The only choice was to cross in the basement under the stage. For actresses in dresses or actors with swords, this was a perilous maneuver. Trips and falls on the basement stairs were not uncommon, and ripped and dirtied costumes were a part of nearly every large-cast show despite our best efforts.

In addition, there were two outside sets of steps at the ends of the building on the south side which matched the pair on the north side. Steps, steps, steps.

Alumni Hall presented a reasonably decent face to travelers passing on South Street, but its backside gave students and faculty on campus a much less presentable view.

To begin with, the building was anything but a lovely design. It was made even uglier by the weather-worn doors and fire escapes which had been tacked on to make it more usable. Its many windows were often blocked by art-work, stage scenery, furniture or just painted over. The tacky roof over the entry to the Gizmo was often uglified further by a class year number painted on its asphalt shingles. Bushes were planted around the perimeter and ivy climbed its walls, but the building was definitely no match for the grandeur of Old Main.

Despite this, the building was a campus center. With the Giz in the basement, three thriving departments and a theater upstairs, students were coming and going from 7 in the morning till after 10 at night. The low brick wall between the concrete steps down to the Giz was a favorite sit spot on sunny days and was often packed end-to-end with students. Yes, it was the students that made the tired old building come to life, who gave it its energy and color. It was also they who provided the memories that thousands of us will never forget.

Alumni Hall was a dump -- but it was our dump. We loved it, and it will be good to see it renovated and brought back to full life again.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online April 24, 2001

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