Elmhurst College In Depth

Echoes from the Clock Tower

At one time or another, every student traipses the halls of Old Main. But only a few get the privilege of ascending the steps of the historic building’s clock tower to sign his or her name for posterity.

The oldest signatures still visible date to 1899. They are signed in pencil and blend in with the dark-gray plaster covering the old Chicago pink bricks. An eye-squinting inspection of the top west wall reveals 20 signatures from the class of 1900.

For the past century, students, faculty and staff have left their marks on the tower walls. At first, it was whoever was so inclined. For the past 30 years or so, student leaders and others were asked to add their names to a piece of campus history.

In 1976, when Old Main was vacated temporarily for an interior renovation, the tower remained locked to protect its fragile interior walls and historic signatures. Despite precautions, damage from water flowing through an open window caused the plaster to buckle and crumble, taking some signatures with it. Time has reduced other areas of the clock tower to bare brick and turned the once polished wooden stairs to creaky, worn slats. These days, access to the tower is by invitation only.

The names and years inscribed on the walls cover much of the College’s 140-year history. In the 1960s, several ambitious students managed to sign their names, in chalk, on the tower’s ceiling—a nearly ten-and-a-half-foot drop to the top floor landing. When he took office in 2008, Dr. S. Alan Ray became the first president of the College to add his John Hancock to the tower walls.

Once a dining hall and dorm
Dedicated in October 1878, Old Main is the oldest building on campus, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It has functioned as a dining hall and a dormitory, and now houses classrooms and faculty offices. The entrance to the tower serves as part of the art department’s photography dark room.

In the 1940s, for understandable reasons, administrators wanted to downplay the College’s German heritage. The inscription on the north side of Old Main’s clock tower, “Pro Seminar Der Deutschen Ev Synode von N.A.,” was crudely plastered over. (It translates as “Pre-Seminary German Evangelical Synod of North America.”)

An exterior restoration in 1985 uncovered the original inscription. Windows also were added to the openings where a bell once tolled the hour. The bell, removed earlier, now sits by Langhorst Field and is used to herald victories at home football games.

The original clock face rests in the Rudolf G. Schade Archives in the lower level of the A.C. Buehler Library. The clock hands are on display on the first floor of Old Main.

These days, students and others invited to sign do so with black permanent marker. They try to be respectful of the names already there. Although the clock tower no longer announces the time of day, the signatures inside will echo for years to come.

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