Oldest building on campus, Altgeld Hall, known as ‘Castle on the Hill’

By Donald Miller

As the oldest building on campus, Altgeld Hall is rich in history and unique in style. However, the real story behind this bit from the past is how Altgeld came to be known as the “Castle on the Hill.”

No, DeKalb was never the site of a famous battle. Nor did any royalty ever live on campus. The building was the result of plans to make Altgeld Hall the most unique in the U.S.

Named for John Peter Altgeld, Illinois governor from 1892-1896, Altgeld Hall was the first building of the Northern Illinois Normal School. The reason for it being shaped like a castle is also credited to Gov. Altgeld who took an enthusiastic interest in the exterior of the building.

“Education in Transition: The History of NIU” by Earl W. Hayter gave an apt history of the “castle.”

One writer of the time, included in the book, noted the governor was “particularly fond of a certain style of architecture, usually referred to as Tudor Gothic, or the English-castle style. It resembled the old castles along the Rhine River in Germany.”

“I’ve always liked it. I’ve lived around here for years and have enjoyed seeing it,” said Paula Vogeler, accounting technician in Altgeld Hall. “It’s easy for telling people where you work,” she added.

It was Gov. Altgeld’s intention to make the building unique. At the original planning meetings, he declared of the 160-odd public buildings already built, “scarcely one has any character and nearly all of them look like warehouses or shops,” according to Hayter’s book.

John W. Cook, who was to be the new school’s first president, wanted the criteria to match his theories of education. His insistence helped to make the building one of the “finest structures for Normal school purposes thus built in this country.”

After several planning meetings, building plans from Charles E. Brush were chosen. Soon after, the Board of Trustees accepted the bid of $145,155.44 by William J. McAlpine. Construction of the “Castle on the Hill” was underway.

Groundbreaking was on Sept. 17, 1895 and was followed by a cornerstone-laying ceremony on Oct. 1. The event drew a crowd estimated between 30,000-40,000 people.

At the ceremony, the customary cornerstone box was deposited in the cavity of the stone and a list of its contents read. Since no record has been kept, all that is known today are the few items mentioned by the newspapers: the prayer book of the Episcopal Church, a copy of a local paper, Inter-Ocean, for Oct. 1, 1895, several war relics, a DeKalb history, the pencil used to break the ground, a set of U.S. coins and the first shoe produced by the Leonard-Atkinson shoe factory in DeKalb.

“Unique that it is, it’s kind of a landmark for NIU,” said Accounting Office Secrectary N. Jean Riippi.