The five original universities in Illinois have one particularly bemusing thing in common: each has on its campus a building that looks very like a castle.
Northern Illinois University, Illinois State University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Eastern Illinois University, and Southern Illinois University at Carbondale each possess a towering structure in the Tudor-Gothic architectural style that was suggested by former Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld as the most aesthetically pleasing and functional for a minimal cost of building.
The names of these structures varied from college to college, changing through the years; "Castle on the Hill" at NIU, "Altgeld's Folly" and later "Cook Hall" at ISU, "The Library Building" and later "The Law Building" at U of I, "Old Main" at EIU, and at SIUC simply "Altgeld".
While each of the other four buildings has its own fascinating history, the focus of this particular writeup is the castle at SIUC.
The first thing to know about Altgeld is that it was built in 1896; the name is for the governor, but it means "old money" in German. It cost forty thousand dollars back then, no kidding. Originally it housed the library, gymnasium, and the chemistry, biology, and physics departments.
The last major renovation was in 1958, and that's when things got out of hand, as I see it.
Ever since that renovation, Altgeld has been exclusively the music department's building at SIUC; for this reason it has gained in some social circles the affectionate moniker, "Maison des Lunes".
To step into this vast and labyrinthine building is an act of incredible stupidity for anybody who is not a dedicated music major.
Well, to get into college music in the first place, you have to be a little bit crazy.
That being said, Altgeld is absolutely crawling with crazies disguised as friendly pianists and sax players. If you take twelve steps into the building and turn around any corner, you will be confronted with another series of hallways identical to every other hall in the four-story building.
Windows are few and far between; the sun's position and outdoor landmarks cannot be used as a locational reference.
There are no signs to indicate your location nor even the location of the nearest restroom or stairwell. There is an elevator, but I am baffled as to where it may be found. As far as I'm concerned, the place is fourth-dimensional. No matter how massive it is on the outside, there is no rational way to describe how uncontestably huge Altgeld is on the inside. Even worse, the low ceilings cause an oppressive and constant urge for any outsider to please leave now.
Some of these seemingly-endless, corkscrewing hallways are devoid of life when the musicians are in rehearsal, and each hall is lined with no fewer than six locked practice rooms, all of which are identical but for minor variations in the woodstain of the ancient, out-of-tune, well-loved and well-hated studio upright Baldwin pianos they contain.
The floors are a gorgeous deep green marble with Roman Key patterns in rust brown. Every hallway echoes; if you hear a flute, you could walk a city block in its general direction before finding somebody who will inform you that no, woodwind rooms are in the other direction, gawsh!
Even having said all this... I love Altgeld. She's incredible. She's inscrutable. She is definitely a "she."
At sunset in early autumn, when the freshman of the architecture programme are scrambling to get to their lecture hall on time, without fail one of them will pause mid-stride and gaze up at the massive crenelated silhouette of her highest tower.
At noon in springtime, the red-golden light strikes her gorgeously out-of-place facade, and she glows. This beauty is only increased when viewing her next to the dome of Shryock Auditorium. If you can imagine the dome of Hagia Sophia juxtaposed directly with the outer walls of Camelot, then you may just have an idea of the sheer glory experienced by the student who looks up at Shryock and Altgeld standing together in the May sunshine. They glisten.
Furthermore, any errant pianist will find a haven in the towering castle... if he is sneaky enough.
To the persuasive student, there are no locked doors in Altgeld. So many music majors haunt its halls that it is rare for a single nonmajor to be noticed.
The problem: the piano rooms are very securely locked; only music majors hold the keys.
The solution: con a music major into letting you use his key. It's stunningly easy; they know immediately that it's a con, that you didn't lose your own key... but they're wonderfully kind, good-natured, batshite-crazy people, and they aren't afraid of having one more potentially loose screw tossed into the mix.
Yes, I love Altgeld. Altgeld saved my sanity when I needed to vanish for awhile and just play. Altgeld is eternal, and she does not judge. She is the patron saint and goddess and daemon and genius of some of the best and craziest and most talented people I know.
From one small human architect to one very large castle, let this be my hymn:
Hail, Symphonie, thou heav’n-born maid!
Thou gildest e’en the drafter's trade.
Hail, flowing fount of sentiment!
All hail! All hail! Divine emollient!*
*Lyrics borrowed and altered with thanks from Gilbert & Sullivan.