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off limits places

Big Story: Off Limits at Augustana College

From the Barb Ickes takes us inside these 'off limits' places series
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Warning: Objects in the distance are larger than they appear.

The dome on he dome on Old Main is a landmark on the campus of Augustana College in Rock Island, Old Main has occupied its perch above 7th Ave…

It's been a theme in these Off Limits Places tours, getting up close and personal with places I've seen my whole life and realizing I had it all wrong.

The underbelly of the Interstate 74 bridge blew my mind with its 3,000-plus square feet of long-ago abandoned toll offices. The catwalk above the main terminal at the Quad-City International Airport is practically the length of a runway. And the old Davenport Bank Building tower, high above the downtown sidewalks, shocked me with its neglected penthouse apartment whose vacancy still feels like a crime.

Once your expectation has been jilted, it's hard to recollect what it was. Reality has a way of erasing imagination. In every instance, though, the authentic experience was an improvement upon blind supposition.

And I'm happy to report the Old Main dome at Augustana College is no exception.

Leading to the dome

From the street, the dome looks like the crown on a state capitol.

The stately academic building that sits on the south bluff above Rock Island's 7th Avenue is a landmark in the city and and a treasure to alumni, faculty and staff. Regarded as a monument to the aspirations and achievements of Augie's Swedish founders, Old Main has a presence that can be felt by simply driving past.


The exterior of the dome and upper floors of Old Main on the campus of Augustana College, Rock Island.

And, the closer you get, the more powerful the presence.

Inside, several floors of classrooms give off a vibe of studiousness, dragged from their sobriety by stained-glass windows so beautiful and large, they insist on your appreciation.

Through one regular-looking door on Old Main's top floor is the entrance to another world; its considerable age declaring itself through its framework of timber.

The building's cornerstone was laid in 1884, and it took nearly four years to finish Old Main. The first classes were held in 1888, and the building finally was dedicated in 1893.

Original construction plans showed a building made of brick and stone, but a $25,000 gift to the college made it possible to build entirely in stone. The limestone was mined from Galena, Illinois — from the same quarries that supplied the materials for many of the buildings on Rock Island Arsenal.

Stepping into the dome is to step into a fishbowl of fractured light and hidden spaces and ships' ladders that disappear above you.

Wings and windows

The Old Main dome is built upon a "central pediment," which is a circular space with sizable rooms jutting off in all four directions.

One wing once was used as Augie's science lab. Another served as an ad hoc library. Today, they are used primarily for mechanicals, with wide duct work running in straight lines and 90-degree angles, vanishing and reappearing amid solid-wood beams and water pipes.


Steam pipes and duct work occupy space in areas of the dome atop Old Main on the Augustana College campus in Rock Island.

Kai Swanson, special assistant to the president of Augustana, was our tour guide. He has a freakish knowledge of all things Augie, and an encyclopedic recollection of its history.

Pointing to the east wing of the central pediment, Swanson launched into one of several stories — this one about one of his favorite alumni pranks.

Until about 1960, Augie's chapel was in the east side of Old Main. A resourceful student spotted an opportunity in the east wing of the central pediment, above the original chapel. The student drilled holes into the floor, directly above the lectern. During church services one day, he shook salt flakes over the holes, which then rained down like snow upon then-college President Conrad Bergendoff.

The president, like many good Lutheran Swedes, found humor in the caper, Swanson said.

From the central pediment, we climbed upwards on several sets of ship ladders. The steel ladders and staggered tread plates are painted yellow and feel just as steep going up as they do going down.

Entering the first of three levels of the dome, Swanson told us, "Before the restoration (in 2011 and 2012), this area was filled with pigeon guano."

But the new windows, thick layers of sprayed insulation and other improvements have made the dome inaccessible to most critters. A frighteningly narrow platform at the very top of the dome — the part that holds the speakers for the ringing of the bells — was inaccessible to this critter.

Graffiti galore

On the level of the dome with the giant windows — I'd estimate at least 20 feet tall — the domed shape appears.


Looking down into one of several levels of rooms in the dome of Old Main on the campus of Augustana College in Rock Island.

Pressing his index finger against an east-facing window, Swanson pointed toward the bluff at 7th Street and asked whether I remembered the old Lutheran Hospital. Yes. Of course.


A view of portions of Rock Island and downtown Moline through a window in the dome of Old Main on the Augustana College campus.

"When you walked down the main corridor of the hospital, the windows at the end of the hall perfectly framed the view of Old Main," he said. "That was the work of the Swedish Mafia."

Other Lutheran connections align with Old Main, including the churches and steeples for St. John's on 7th Avenue in Rock Island and First Lutheran, just beyond it on 5th Avenue in Moline.

For a good 20 minutes, I walked from window to window, looking down upon the streets and buildings that I thought I knew so well. In a circular room, high above the ground, the streets and buildings turn into aerial photographs of a now-crowded landscape. The two churches look like neighbors, even though they are more than a dozen blocks apart.

"A lot of people think we should have the dome open to the public," Swanson said as he joined me at a window. "Unfortunately, we can't guarantee safety."

While I never felt in danger, the ship ladders can be a little tricky and give off a wiggle in spots. But the original old plank floors felt solid under foot, and the original beams appear as sturdy as they must have been in their lives as giant trees.

The next flight up seemed like a steeper climb, and it isn't as bright and airy. Though the room is encircled in windows, they are much smaller and in the shape of half moons. The big room at the top of the dome also is more crowded with framework timbers, which a century's worth of Augie graduates found useful record keepers.


Looking down from the highest point in the dome at Old Main on the Augustana College campus in Rock Island.

Some students carved their initials while others used pen and ink to write out their names, along with the years they graduated. I was surprised by the number of familiar names and by the expanse of years that were included in the beam markings — from 1921 (a female student!) to a signature from just two years ago.

I was thinking about how the students who took the time to carve or write their names in the beams probably did so after sneaking their way into the dome. It's much harder to do that today, because it's locked up and well-lit at night. Even though there are easily more than 100 names in the wood, thousands and thousands of students have been through Augie in the 120 years since the dome was completed.

"We get a lot of alumni who always dreamed of coming up, so we send an officer up with them," said Augie's deputy chief of public safety, Mark Beckwith, who joined us for the tour. "We've heard from generations of graduates who always imagined coming up here."

To the tippy top

The last ship ladder in the dome leads to the high, narrow platform, which has a door that opens overhead.

Beyond the door is the carrilon, which is a trio of stationary speakers mounted in the cupola. The speakers emit the digitally pre-programmed sounds of bells. In fact, the bells "rang" while we were in the tall-window part of the dome. But it wasn't nearly as loud as you might guess. Between the heavy insulation in the lower portion, and the open-air construction of the cupola, most of the sound carried outward.


The digital carillon system that mimics the sound of bells ringing occupies the cupola in the dome at Old Main.

Originally, Swanson said, the campus bells were manually produced on the organ at Centennial Hall, across the street from Old Main.

The 6 a.m. bells were played by music students, he said, and the noon bells were supplied by the music professor.

Speaking of bells

Swanson told about his graduating class, 1986, raising money to restore the Augustana bell tower. They would put to use wood that was salvaged during demolition of the campus's oldest building.

The first-cut white pine was recognized as quality timber, so it was saved. Fast forward to Augie's sesquicentennial celebration in 2010.

"We didn't want to follow anyone's lead," Swanson said. "We didn't have a mace (a ceremonial staff used at commencement), and we imagined making one. Then we said, 'Hey, (retired English professor Roald) Tweet is a wood carver.'"

The result is a beautifully planed, 2-foot-long mace with a recognizable structure carved into its head: Old Main.

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Contact Barb Ickes at 563-383-2316 or