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Foellinger Auditorium to celebrate 100th birthday Sept. 29

Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor

Released 9/12/2007

Foellinger Auditorium
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UI Photo
A contemporary look at Foellinger Auditorium during the fall. The auditorium is designed in the Beaux Arts classical style, to reflect the design of the Jefferson Rotunda in Virginia.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The University of Illinois campus is throwing a 100th birthday bash on Sept. 29 for one of its most beloved icons: Foellinger Auditorium.

The brick-and-stone-domed hall, built in 1907 in the Northern Italian Renaissance style and designed by U. of I. alumnus Clarence Howard Blackall, will be feted with just the kind of event early campus planners envisioned it as hosting: a choral and symphonic-band concert.

The anniversary concert, free and open to the public, is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. and will feature The Other Guys, an a cappella octet from the Varsity Men’s Glee Club, and the U. of I. Symphony, conducted by Donald Schleicher.

“We chose those groups because acoustic music was what the auditorium was built for,” said Phil Strang, the building’s manager.

The musical program will follow remarks by Walker Johnson, an architect with the firm Johnson-Lasky, who worked on the building’s 1985 restoration; alumna and U. of I. Foundation board member Jane Rader, who knew the auditorium’s namesake, Helene Foellinger; and Willard Broom, a former associate dean of students. The Other Guys will sing medleys and other selections that “run the gamut of the last 100 years of popular music history,” Strang said. The symphony will perform the program’s second half.

Featuring the U. of I. Symphony, the university’s premier orchestra, is especially fitting, considering that Igor Stravinsky once conducted the university’s symphony orchestra on the same stage – in 1949.

Archival photo of Foellinger Auditorium
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The auditorium is seen here in the aerial photograph of the southern end of the main Quad on the U. of I. campus. Also in the photo are Davenport Hall and the Observatory.

The auditorium’s diverse musical history includes hosting some of the best-known performers, conductors and musical groups of the 20th century, including Marian Anderson, Joan Baez, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, B.B. King, Ravi Shankar, R.E.M., John Philip Sousa, and U2. Many of this generation’s favorites – from Black-eyed Peas, Ice T, and Dave Mathews to Death Cab for Cutie, Liz Phair, Nickel Creek, and Wilco – have played the hall as well.

“It’s a monumental space,” Strang said. But despite the stately, formal interior that’s reminiscent of another era, “bands say it’s great because it’s such an intimate space to perform,” he said, noting that the Star Course and Illini Union Board student groups have been hosting performances in the auditorium for many years.

While the building was constructed in large part for musical performances – evidenced by some of the hall’s interior architectural embellishments – it also was intended as a multipurpose facility. In addition to concerts and lectures, the building has hosted classes, convocations and commencements, debates, memorial services, movies, plays and musicals, art exhibits and stunts shows.

It’s also been a popular wedding venue among alumni, Strang said.

“This building is so adaptable to anything ... lectures, rock concerts ... Dan Rather spoke here last year,” he said. “It has history, it’s unique, it’s user-friendly. It invites you in.”

Those who’ve accepted the invitation have been witness to all manner of
history – from Amelia Earhart’s description of her record-breaking flight from Honolulu to Oakland, Calif., to then-Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s convocation address to U. of I. seniors in 1957. Other notable figures who’ve taken the Foellinger stage include Jane Addams, Maya Angelou, Robert Frost, R. Buckminster Fuller, Bill Gates, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Spike Lee Eleanor Roosevelt and Carl Sandburg.

Alma Meter
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The Alma Mater originally stood on the south side of the Auditorium because the facility is located in the center of the campus. The Alma Mater was moved to its present location at Green and Wright Streets in 1962.

Although alumni may have a soft spot in their hearts for the auditorium, which remains a popular venue for today’s students and faculty and staff members, the building has had something of a hard life. Its physical history has been punctuated with false starts, echoes, a leaky roof, and – ultimately – a happy ending.

The original construction budget for the building envisioned by U. of I. President Edmund Janes James as “the greatest hall of the kind in the Mississipi Valley” was cut in half by the Legislature. Instead of the $400,000 requested, the university received less than $200,00 for the project. As a result, Blackwell, the architect, had to scale down his design, building a hall that was half the size he had planned. Instead of constructing a backstage area, a “temporary” wall was installed on the south side. Plans for a south wing to house the School of Music also were abandoned.

The budget cuts may have led as well to a flaw in the construction, which resulted in the building’s legendary echo. Attempts to correct the acoustical problem – a major embarrassment, given the building’s function as a music hall – were made in 1915 and 1937. Physics professor F.R. Watson spent six years trying to correct the problem, along the way contributing greatly to the emerging field of acoustics. His fixes included hanging huge canvases from the ceiling, installing hair felt strips on the walls, carpeting the stage area and installing a false ceiling. While some of Watson’s solutions were effective, they did little for the building’s visual aesthetics.

By the 1980s, the heavily used building was beginning to look worse for the wear of decades of users and more underfunded building-improvement budgets. Fortunately, a benefactor emerged in retired newspaper publisher Helene Foellinger. In 1985, the U. of I. Class of 1932 mathematics major donated $3 million toward the renovation and refurbishment of the building that now bears her name.

Foellinger’s gift funded a number of major improvements, including replacement of the deteriorated metal dome with a new copper roof; construction of a 6,000-square-foot backstage area; tuckpointing; the addition of lighting around the new dome’s perimeter; interior lighting and sound systems; electrical and mechanical system upgrades; installation of an air conditioning system; and refurbished seating. And once more, improvements were made to the building’s acoustics.

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