Foellinger gets a facelift

University of Illinois Archives

By Rachel Bass

Construction and maintenance repairs on campus have seemingly left no building or ground untouched. Projects have ranged from Urbana to Champaign, from an apartment complex to a new Genomics building, and now, to Foellinger Auditorium.

Monika Pandya, Foellinger Auditorium’s manager, said three or four of the balustrades, or decorative columns along the railing in front of the building, were damaged during a Quad cinema night sometime this July. Although the University responded immediately to the maintenance request, Pandya said the parts could not be replicated quickly.

“These (balustrades) are handmade, they can’t pop them out of a machine,” Pandya said. “Someone is chiseling away right now.”

Once the columns are completed and rebuilt into the architecture, this restoration episode will be added to Foellinger’s elaborate and colorful 97-year-old history.

Originally known as the Auditorium, Foellinger was constructed in 1906 under the direction of architect Clarence H. Blackall, a University graduate from the class of 1877. Blackall styled the building after the Jefferson Rotunda in Virginia and intended it to be “the nucleus of the campus,” Pandya said.

University students and faculty members officially welcomed the Auditorium in 1907, during a two-day dedication ceremony on Nov. 4 and 5 of that year. University President Edmund James inaugurated the festivities, which included performances by the school’s various orchestra and vocal ensembles.

Pandya said that while the ensembles performed, the audience noticed sounds echoing throughout the building. This event inspired University physics professor T.R. Watson to study the new science of acoustics, but it also disappointed Blackall. He had learned from architect colleagues that domes do not make good theatres because curves in interior design make sound difficult to set.

Dissatisfied with his work, Blackall addressed his concerns to the University. In a letter dated Jan. 29, 1923, Blackall wrote, “My best wish for that building would be to have it go up in smoke some night and somebody would have the chance to rebuild it right.”

“Blackall felt he could have done better,” Pandya said. “He avoided curved interiors in his later designs.”

Despite Blackall’s plea, the University did not destroy the building. Instead, it became what Blackall had always wanted – the livelihood of campus.

Daniel Perrino, a 1949 alumnus, recalled some of his memories from the Auditorium’s early years.

“Foellinger was the focal point of culture on campus,” said Perrino, who is also a University professor emeritus of music and an associate dean of the college of Fine and Applied Arts. On some Sunday evenings the community and campus would gather for a community sing. It wasn’t church-oriented, but they would sometimes sing hymns. Then, on every Wednesday night in the summer, the University bands would play on the steps in front of the Auditorium.”

The Auditorium has always hosted events with professionals, politicians, musicians and poets. Speakers and performers throughout the years have included Maya Angelou, Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert Frost and Bill Gates.

Constant use of the facility and a general wear and tear of time prompted the University to renovate the Auditorium in 1937, which was the first major renovation of the building, Pandya said. Updates included adding dressing rooms and correcting the acoustic problem by lowering the ceiling of the interior dome.

“This was structural reinforcement,” Pandya said. “This was stuff people wouldn’t necessarily notice.”

As the years passed, the University inevitably expanded. Pandya said that with the end of World War II, people returned to school and the population increased. Newer facilities had been built and although the Auditorium was still in use, it did not rank high on the maintenance list.

“When you have major construction, you don’t have maintenance,” Pandya said.

One University graduate’s decision to help restore the Auditorium changed all that. Helene Foellinger, of the class of 1932, donated money to restore the Auditorium in 1983. As prospective students are told on Quad tours, the University named the Auditorium after and dedicated the forecourt to her.

“The 1983 renovation was big,” Pandya said. “The whole building was re-gutted because the weight of the dome was making the back wall curve.”

Construction included updating the stage lighting and mechanical system, restoring the bathrooms and adding a backstage. The front lobby was remodeled, the sheet metal dome was replaced with copper and a four and a half-foot pineapple was placed on the dome.

Pandya said the pineapple, which is included in the architecture of Harker Hall and the English building, has symbolic significance dating back to colonial times. It is a symbol of welcome and hospitality.

Despite the grandeur of the University’s newer arenas such as the Krannert Art Museum and Assembly Hall, students like Gina Rinaldi, senior in LAS, appreciate the history and personal atmosphere of Foellinger. As a member of the musical ensemble The Girls Next Door, Rinaldi has performed in a variety of locations, yet ranks the Auditorium as one of her favorites.

“The first time I performed in Foellinger, I was so intimidated,” Rinaldi said. “The stage was so big and open, but it was so real. Every time I go back, I see something new and I feel like I’m following in the footsteps of all of those students that performed in the past.”

Rinaldi is not alone in her beliefs.

“I get a sense of history just walking by Foellinger,” Perrino said. “Your mind can’t help but to wonder and when you get older you start to reflect an awful lot on the good times.”

Pandya has also experienced Perrino’s sentiments by watching other University graduates.

“I’ve seen older graduates break down in tears when they walk on stage and reminisce about what they did or what happened to them here,” Pandya said. “They’re overwhelmed by it, they’ll tell you exactly where they sat or how they met their husband here. I couldn’t imagine the Quad without it.”

Pandya’s admiration of the building has propelled her to begin the process of registering Foellinger Auditorium with the National Registry of Historic Landmarks, a project she began in 2002.

“This building means so much to me that I do crazy projects,” Pandya said.