History’s Foundations: Altgeld Hall

By Olivia Willoughby

It looks like a castle that is not-so-ironically placed on Castle Drive, just without the flying, flaming arrows like in the old days, and it’s the oldest building at NIU.

“The story is that Governor Altgeld had really liked castles,” said Cindy Ditzler, director of the Regional History Center. “That’s why he decided to have another building that looked like a castle. He really liked the castle architecture.”

Ditzler said as governor, Altgeld was a vocal advocate of bringing in another normal school to the Northern Illinois area and signed legislation that created NIU.

“He was governor of Illinois when the college was called ‘Northern Illinois State Normal School,’” Ditzler said. “It didn’t get named for him until much later. Because he was governor when the school was chartered, it was a tribute to John Peter Altgeld. It was originally called the ‘Castle Building.’”

Ditzler said Altgeld Hall was the first building on campus.

“It started in 1895 and classes started in 1899 while they were still working on the building,” Ditzler said. “It was the only building on campus for quite some time until McMurry Hall was built in 1911.”

Before obtaining its art gallery and other amenities, Altgeld Hall was multifunctional.

“It housed everything for the university,” Ditzler said. “It had all the presidents’ offices. It also had large classrooms where students had their large classes … The only thing it didn’t do was house the students.”

Altgeld Hall also held a gym, library and biology labs, Ditzer added.

In the past, Altgeld Hall was known for where numerous famous people visited. Barry Schrader, NIU alumnus and former Daily Chronicle news editor, used to attend Altgeld Hall during the 1960s. He said people such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Carl Sandburg and Amelia Earhart had all visited to speak.

“A lot of famous people came here over the years,” Schrader said. “Carl Sandburg had written about the life of Abraham Lincoln, so of course he was widely known as a literary historian.”

Similar to the riots around Williston Hall, during the 1960s, students had been protesting against the Vietnam War, Ditzler said.

“There is a story that in one of the towers on the third floor, during the 1960s, surveillance equipment was installed to keep an eye on the students and see what was going on with them,” Ditzler said. “It was when we had the Kent State shooting. We had a lot of rioting on campus.”

While Ditzler said surveillance equipment was a “story,” she said it still relates to NIU’s interesting history of boycotting and rioting.

“A lot of people don’t think of NIU as having riots on campus,” Ditzler said. “But NIU students were very dedicated and concerned about their country.”