Construction unearths secrets of past
Old Main renovations reveal etchings and sketches
The cadre of construction workers who have been removing layers of wood, metal and stone from Old Main during its renovation have uncovered not just architectural marvels from a bygone era, but also hidden mementos of the iconic building's storied past.
As carpenters, bricklayers and tuck pointers peeled away some of the building's upper layers during the past five months, they were amazed at the relics that generations of students left on and around the inner and outer walls of Old Main since it was built in 1889.
"I love restoring old buildings," Perry Mader, a tuck pointer for Estes Construction, said while scraping back layers of mortar between limestone blocks on the outside of Old Main about 50 feet from the ground. "You're bringing back history."
Mader is one of about two dozen workers who each day weave their way around seven stories of an intricate lattice of scaffolding constructed around the historic building. As part of the $4 million first phase of the building's estimated entire $13 million renovation cost, workers are installing pre-patinated copper clad dome, a copper roof, sealing the limestone blocks, and replacing all of the nearly 150 windows.
While digging into crevices, peeling away wood and stripping off layers of copper, the workers have uncovered unique odds and ends from the last century, including a beer bottle from the 1970s, a matchbox from about 1950 and dozens of names and graffiti written inside the dome dating back as far as 1905.
"There is as lot of history up there. We're seeing a lot of names from 1959, 1929 even," said Mark Tomlinson, general foreman for Estes Construction. "They're hard to find. They're up there in the timbers. Some are carved into the structure, using a knife or a nail or whatever they had at the time."
Tomlinson, who was awed over the craftsmanship in the dome's 120-year-old woodwork, said he wished the carpenters who built the dome would have signed their names to their work - a practice he said was common during that era. "It's interesting for me as a carpenter to see how they did things back then, it's day and night from how we do it now," he said.
Last week, Mike Gammon, superintendent of Estes Construction led members of the Observer up the scaffolding to the base of the dome to see workers installing the new copper roofing and then later brought the group up into inside of the dome, which is also being refinished.
"You're looking at a good part of Augustana history here," Gammon said, pointing to the wooden beams where students left their mark decades earlier. Names, short poems, anatomical diagrams of the kidney, fraternity and sorority emblems and artistic sketches were scrawled out, etched or painted on beams, stone walls and pillars and floorboards all throughout the dome's interior. Many names were accompanied by dates - some as far back as 1905 - and others, perhaps out of fear of an administrative reprisal, were simply initials.
Dag Blanck, director of the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center at Augustana, carved his name and the year "1977" in one beam that attracted dozens of similar students from the 1940s through the 1980s.
"I have no idea why my name is there. I think I have a vague recollection that I went up there once, in 1977, yeah that could be it," he said, but remained unsure how he got up into the dome. "Helicopter maybe," he quipped. "There must be some door -- I have some memory of that, that there's a door"
Other former students, like Anna Mae Scott, 76, of Grant Park, IL, were amused after hearing that her name followed by the year "1953" had been found inside the dome. "I have no recollection of this at all. I can't imagine who would have done it," she said, laughing while adamantly asserting that she was not responsible for the mark. "I wouldn't have done any graffiti and I did graduate in 1956 and that said 1953."
Scott, a former member of the now defunct Ken sorority at Augustana, said she attended classes in Old Main and was, as a freshman, obligated to go to chapel services each day. She also remembered that the iconic building did attract a plethora of pranks and practical jokes, but added she didn't partake in any of them.
"Those were mostly done by the POPS," she said.
Burt Hall, who graduated in 1968, was also surprised that his name was found in the dome.
"The sad part is that I can't remember what I would have been doing up there," said Hall, now living in Orinda, CA. "Apparently there was (a way up there) because my name was found up there."
Like Scott, Hall remembered some of the practical jokes conducted by students.
"I remember the prank when there was a disassembly of a Volkswagen (car) that was reassembled in the dean's office," he said. Students did scale buildings from time to time, particularly during the "Ugly Man on Campus" celebration when members of POPS would climb up the old gym and Denkman Hall and hang a banner "exhorting the people to vote for one of the POPS," he said.
Administrators from decades ago said they also had no recollection about students getting into the dome.
"I remember the students made the dome into a teapot," said Glen Brolander, former vice president of financial affairs at Augustana who retired in 1992 after 30 years of service. "But as far as writing their names, I don't recall that at all. If they did that, they didn't tell anyone about it."
James Ribbeck, who served as the dean of students and vice president for student affairs at Augustana from 1964-1980, said he was also unaware that students were getting up into the dome. "It didn't come to my attention at all," he said. "Old Main has been here forever so (the graffiti) could have been before my time."
Most of the names and graffiti inside the dome will remain untouched and preserved for future generations although some of construction and replacement of windows and old, weathered wood will destroy some of them, said Gammon, who continues to warn students not to climb the scaffolding for their own safety after his workers recently found beer cans near the top of the dome.
"It's a dangerous place to be for students," he said. "We don't want anyone getting hurt."
His contractors continue to work long hours to complete the outside renovation before rainy or cold weather arrives. "We're hoping to be done by the 31st of December, but that depends on what Mother Nature gives us," he said while looking out over the Mississippi River from on top of Old Main.
"I like the view up here. It's great. You got a beautiful view of Arsenal Island. You know it's different every day," he said. "Seasons change, you know, makes you feel a little more alive."