Naperville landmark still home for North Central’s students
May 12, 2011 6:02PM
The original part of North Central College’s Old Main housed classrooms, the library, seminary, chapel, offices and dormitories for men on the fourth and fifth floors.
Today, the building houses the college’s mailroom, switchboard, some classrooms, and the offices of the president, admissions, financial aid, business affairs, development, alumni relations, marketing and communications, institutional advancement, academic affairs, enrollment management and student affairs, and graduate and continuing education. The second floor includes Smith Hall, named for the college’s first president, A.A. Smith, and longest-term faculty member, his son, Henry Cowles Smith.
A $6.4 million renovation and expansion of Old Main began in 1997 and was completed in 1998. The 5,000-square-foot fifth floor was added to the center and southern portions of the structure as part of the project. Additional restrooms and an elevator were installed.
A portion of the roof was damaged by fire during the renovation project, the cause and origin of which were undetermined. Old wooden beams damaged by the fire were so strong, they didn’t burn. They were subsequently cleaned up and shored up and remain. During the renovation, an 1870 silver dollar was found.
The building’s current size is 45,762 square feet. It stands 92 feet tall.
Inside the ground floor is a mini-hall of history, including an old bell from the tower and photos of the school’s nine presidents.
Old Main was designed by architect John Mills van Osdel, who also designed the Palmer House in Chicago and the Illinois Governor’s Mansion.
Sources: Kim Butler, North Central archivist; Ted Slowik, North Central director of PR and media relations; and Paul Loscheider, VP business affairs.
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
Of the Naperville landmarks named to the American Institute of Architects’ Illinois Great Places list a few years ago, only one is a building.
Lesser known than the other two — Centennial Beach and the Riverwalk — this building was created with limestone from the quarry that became the beach.
It is likely the only building in town that ever had 300 to 400 classroom chairs put on the roof one fall day in the 1950s.
It might also be the only Naperville building with an old slate chalkboard — with German writing still on it — buried behind a wall.
And certainly it must have been the only five-story Naperville building, which as late as 1997 had no elevators and just one restroom found in the basement.
For its first 30 years, it was all of North Central College. Today it is known as Old Main.
Old Main’s cornerstone was laid May 17, 1870. On Tuesday, North Central College kicks off a 150th birthday celebration for the 2,900-student, 59-acre school that occupies a large swath east of downtown. Originally North-Western College, the school moved here from Plainfield in 1861 after Naperville lured it here with $25,000 and 8 acres east of downtown, donated by resident Delcar Sleight.
Old Main, as completed in 1871 at a cost of $32,152, consisted of the five-story north tower and a shorter section to the south, now the center section. The current south area wasn’t built for another 20 years, and no other major work was done on the building for more than 100 years. In 1998, the taller center section was added and the major renovation took place.
Old Main originally had 25 chimneys and was heated by coal until 1982, when electricity was installed.
Building for students
North Central Trustee Dick Wehrli remembers all his classes were in the “well-built” Old Main before “they really fixed it up and installed heating and air conditioning and elevators.”
His favorite area was the basement “recreation center,” which consisted of a ping-pong table and “a couple of lounge chairs, which were usually full.”
Wehrli, who earned his bachelor of science in business administration and accounting in 1956, owns Naperville Ready-Mix, Naperville Excavating and DuKane Precast. But when he remembers Old Main the way it used to be, he doesn’t think about the building itself.
“You think about the teachers that were there, the other students you met,” he said.
That sort of memory is one reason there are still classes in Old Main, said Paul Loscheider, vice president for business affairs.
“(When the building was remodeled,) we could have had faculty offices there. But we elected to make them classrooms,” he said. “We want students in the building — that’s what we’re here for. The students are around here to get to know not just the faculty but administrators. We all have an opportunity to impact the young people’s lives.”
Old Main occupies a special place in many hearts. Loscheider often sees people taking photos of the iconic building from the wide expanse of lawn on the west side — where, a century ago, horses were once left when their riders entered the building.
Alumni who attended the school before 1998 remember when North Central’s radio station was housed
on the top floor of the building. Whenever a very long song played on WONC in those days, it was more
than likely because the DJ was taking a bathroom break all the way down — then back up — five flights of wooden stairs.
But Wehrli’s favorite memory is of the day the classroom chairs appeared on Old Main’s lower roof. The unnamed students did it, he said, to get a day off from school.
Though Wehrli vividly remembers the sight of the chairs atop Old Main, he does not remember whether he was involved. “I know I waited this long before I talked about it.”
Joni Hirsch Blackman is the author of “Downtown Naperville.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.