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A look at the history of Altgeld Hall

A faded watercolor painting of the Altgeld Hall building on a sunny day. People are strolling down the sidewalk towards the 3 story building and the large bell tower looms above on the left side of the building.
Watercolor by L. Buck via Niko Johnson-Fuller

Right now, Altgeld Hall’s Romanesque design is barely visible, and its iconic chimes are unable to be heard as a long awaited renovation process is underway. This marks almost 70 years since the last major change to the campus landmark. But despite its recent period of stability, the building originates from a period of dynamic change and tumultuous political developments.

Modern day Altgeld Hall surrounded by scaffolding around the entire clock tower and most of the lower part of the building. The sky is blue with a few wispy clouds, the trees are still bare.
Niko Johnson-Fuller

The most clear starting point for exploring this history would be the life of John Peter Altgeld, the namesake of the building. Altgeld is most well known as the Governor of Illinois, a position which he held from 1893 to 1897, towards the end of a period known as the Gilded Age.

Born in Germany, Altgeld’s family fled in 1848 as a revolutionary movement shook the country. He grew up in a poor agricultural household in Ohio, and at 16 enlisted in the Union Army. As the Civil War ended and he aged into adulthood, he left Ohio and pursued a legal career, which began in earnest as the city attorney of Savannah, Missouri. This experience would inform Altgeld about the political and legal systems, which he increasingly came to view as unjust.

A very old sepia toned photograph of J.P. Altgeld. He is looking off to the left and is wearing a suit jacket over a vest, white shirt, and bow tie.
Via Niko Johnson-Fuller

Altgeld would move to Chicago in 1875, and was still fairly poor. He lived out of his office until he married his wife, Emma, who would serve as an important and trusted advisor to Altgeld throughout his life. Together, they moved to Lakeview, which was then a suburb of the growing city. There, his fortunes would begin to change, as he connected with a neighbor who was a prominent lawyer and began to make his way up in the world of law and politics. In the following years, through a series of shrewd real estate investments, Altgeld would become quite wealthy. At the same time, he would also begin to enter political life at a higher level. He built up a political constituency among fellow Germans and organized labor, who supported his more progressive politics. He had earned a great deal of support among the social reform milieu of Chicago with his book Our Penal Machinery and Its Victims, which criticized the unfair nature of the criminal justice system, and was based largely on his own experiences as an attorney. This 1884 work mirrors many criticisms still leveled today, with Altgeld arguing that the penal system disproportionately impacts marginalized people and perpetuates criminality rather than rehabilitating people.

After failing to run for state legislature and losing a Congressional race, Altgeld got his first success in Chicago politics in 1886, becoming a Cook County Judge. While this gave him an opportunity to practice what he preached, it also further irritated him. He did not like the formal procedure, the “ludicrous” robes, and the fact that many of his colleagues did not seem to share his distrust of the system. He was gaining prestige, being named Chief Justice of the Cook County Court, but he was not happy with what he was doing. In 1891, he resigned, deciding to focus on his business dealings, particularly the Unity Building, a skyscraper which he was very proud of. But it would not be long before he was dragged back into politics, and this time it was the Governor’s race. While many Democrats did not agree with the more radical elements of Altgeld’s politics, he had the money and political connections to mount a winning campaign, and they were desperate after decades of statewide Republican dominance. With the rise of the Populist movement nationwide, Altgeld was able to channel his progressive ideas into a successful campaign, winning the 1892 election and becoming the first foreign-born governor of Illinois.

An illustrated picture of a white man in a brown jacket and hat and green pants. He is cutting through ropes with a large knife that says pardons. the ropes hold back three angry dogs. One has escaped and is running toward a woman and two small children, they look scared.
Cartoon from Judge Magazine 1893 via Niko Johnson-Fuller

What came next would be by far the most controversial moment of his life. Years earlier, in 1886, several German labor activists had been accused of attacking the police during the Haymarket Affair. While some had already been executed, several were still in prison. Many believed they were innocent, including several of Altgeld’s progressive allies, who pressured him to approve a pardon. While he did not initially concede, after months of careful consideration of the case details, he released his famous 18,000 word pardon. This was not received well by Altgeld’s opponents and many in the mainstream media. A piece in the The New York Times called him a “reckless demagogue,” while a Chicago Tribune article said he “had not a drop of true American blood in his veins” and compared him to Confederate secessionists. He was depicted as a “friend of mad dogs” by political cartoonists, and there were even considerations of impeaching him.

Nevertheless, Altgeld maintained that he had made the right choice, and in the next year would once again show himself to be stalwartly on the side of organized labor. After the 1893 recession, the poor working conditions for Pullman company workers led to a massive strike led by American Railway Union leader Eugene Debs. President Grover Cleveland aimed to send in federal troops to quash the strike, a move which Altgeld harshly opposed. Ultimately, Altgeld failed to prevent the violence of the federal troops or the defeat of the striking workers. His positions once again put him at odds with the press, with the Chicago Tribune describing him as “a sympathizer with riot, with violence, with lawlessness and with anarchy.” These two events were the two most prominent political moments of Altgeld’s tenure as governor, but there is much more that defines his legacy. He signed into law anti-corruption civil service reforms, prisoner parole legislation, regulations of factories, sweatshops and child labor, an eight hour workday for women, rejected a private utility monopoly and created a state board of arbitration for industrial disputes.

But, if you live in Champaign-Urbana, you are most likely to know his name for his contributions to education. University of Illinois President Edmund James claimed that “Governor Altgeld raised this institution from a comparatively insignificant country college to the rank of a great school of learning, the foundations of which are broad and deep,” and suggested a statue of him be built on campus. During Altgeld’s administration, there was a massive increase of funding for public higher education. This in part was motivated by concerns that private universities, like the University of Chicago, were becoming increasingly controlled by wealthy donors, and ensuring Illinoisans had well-equipped public higher education in their own state.

Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Altgeld Hall. It is a three story tan brick castle shaped building. The sky is gray and the trees are bare.
Mark Jaroski

Today the most visible impact of this contribution are a series of buildings built during his tenure, including Altgeld Hall on the U of I campus. The construction of these buildings reflected several of Altgeld’s deeply held beliefs. He insisted they be constructed with union labor, and that he retained the right as governor to inspect the property. He also pushed for a Tudor Gothic architectural vision, which created the “castle-like” look for many of the buildings. One exception is the U of I’s Altgeld Hall, for which the Board of Trustees decided upon a Romanesque design. Throughout its history, Altgeld Hall has gone through many changes. After its construction in 1896, it hosted the University Library and served as a center of student life, similar to the Illini Union today. Its iconic chimes were installed in 1920, and seven years later it became the site of the College of Law. Now, it houses the mathematics department, as it has since 1956.

A copper plaque in honor of J.P. Altgeld
Niko Johnson-Fuller

The change of name to Altgeld Hall occurred in 1941, over four decades after its construction. Two years after the publication of an influential biography, it was around this time that the tenure of the one-term governor was beginning to be considered more positively. Still, the renaming was controversial, with the Dean of the College of Law and the University President objecting, along with a Republican member of the Board of Trustees claiming the change was a “Democratic plot.” Nevertheless, the decision was made, with the condition that the building was solely to honor Altgeld’s contributions to the university.

Harry Barnard’s biography that helped reshape the view of Altgeld was titled Eagle Forgotten, named after a poem celebrating him by Vachel Lindsay. Now, despite this moniker as someone forgotten by time, Altgeld Hall’s renovations aim to preserve his namesake for future generations. While the U of I only officially commemorates his contributions to higher education, his short stint in the state’s highest office made numerous changes far beyond that, shaping Illinois and influencing politics across the nation.

Niko Johnson-Fuller has a podcast, Learning & Labor, which dives more into Altgeld’s life and influence. You can find sources on Altgeld and his namesake buildings here.

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