June 04, 2004

SIUC's stately Wheeler Hall turns 100 years old

by Paula M. Davenport

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Over the past century, she "witnessed" former U.S. President William Howard Taft's visit to neighboring Shryock Auditorium in 1918, the fiery destruction of the second Old Main Hall in 1969 and throngs of outdoor concertgoers who annually flock to the popular summer Sunset Concert series.

The third structure added to Southern Illinois University Carbondale's campus -- at an approximate cost of $30,000 in June 1904 -- Wheeler Hall became the first stand-alone library on a campus of its kind in Illinois.She'd tell you all about it if she could. But she's just a building -- the stately Wheeler Hall.

SIUC was a teacher's college at the time.

Romanesque in style, Wheeler Hall's three-story exterior combines deep red brick, lighter stone adornments, arched entrances and columns. Inside, visitors marvel at ornate handcrafted moldings, carved newel posts, a granite-floored foyer and views of central campus' sweeping lawns and gardens.

"It's the nicest building on campus," says Rhonda Seeber, assistant to the associate provost of the University's School of Medicine and a tenant since 1978. She so loves the building she volunteered to help oversee its 1992 renovation, which pays homage to the building's original architectural style.

"It's spacious, open and airy. And it has character," she adds.

University officials dedicated the building June 7, 1904, in conjunction with the school's 29th commencement program, Phyllis Prosser Kimmel's writes in her report, "The History of the Southern Illinois State Normal University."

Then-Gov. Richard Yates sent a proxy. Springfield judge S.P. Wheeler, also president of the college's Board of Trustees, officiated. Upon Wheeler's retirement a year later, the trustees named the building in his honor.

Along with a financial report of project costs, the audience, the glee club and the University quartet lightened things up with songs -- all of which led to a formal "acceptance of the building and transfer of keys."

Wheeler is the first building on campus to bear the name of a benefactor. Judge Wheeler lobbied diligently for the initial $25,000 state appropriation necessary to build the facility.

Wheeler Library housed 18, 000 books, a reserve reading room, a periodical room, a cataloging room, a delivery area and a librarian's office. And the library served as headquarters for several student groups, including the Zetetic Literary Society, the Socratic Society, the Young Women's and the Young Men's Christian Associations.

Today, administrative offices for the University's medical school and its Med-Prep program occupy the building.

By 1956, the turn-of-the-century quarters were too small for the burgeoning collection of books, magazines and other materials. The first section of Morris Library became home to the collection.