‘More than a building,’ the historic Shryock Auditorium remains at the heart of SIU

Celebrating SIU’s Saluki TRADITION, Saluki PRIDE and Saluki PROMISE for SIU’s 150th Anniversary, This Is SIU is publishing a monthly feature detailing the past, present and future of notable places, events and people on campus.

Some buildings are nothing more than functional structures, while others offer creativity and inspiration, and sometimes a glimpse into the mysteries of the past.

Take one peek at the rising dome and complex curves of Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Shryock Auditorium and you can quickly surmise the importance of the historic building. Yet, what remains secret are the deeper workings behind the tumbling red curtains, the thrilling moments from past presidential speakers and the floating rumors of a mysterious and haunting ghost.

Impressive structure from the beginning

Shryock Auditorium in present day.

As the ninth building constructed on campus and nestled in the very heart of Old Campus, Shryock remains one of the oldest operational buildings at SIU.

Designed by James B. Dibelka of Chicago, Illinois, and constructed by A.W. Stoolman of Champaign, Illinois, the first floor of Shryock originally served as an auditorium, president’s office and registrar’s office, while the second floor held classrooms and the Board of Trustees room.

The Board of Trustees requested funds for the building in 1915, with the 49th General Assembly of the State of Illinois appropriating $135,000 for dedicated auditorium soon after. Construction for the historic structure started taking shape in 1916, with completion following in 1918.

The July 1918 Annual Catalog of Southern Illinois State Normal University explained that, “It is unquestionably the best auditorium in the southern half of Illinois; possibly there is nothing better anywhere in the state outside of Chicago.”

Featuring presidential guest speakers

Convocation ceremony at Shryock.

SIU President Henry William Shryock stood at the helm of the ship at the time of Shyrock’s construction, and the auditorium opened on April 4, 1918 with an impressive guest speaker, former United States President William Howard Taft.

According to an article published by The Daily Free Press on April 5, 1918, the event was a momentous occurrence for both the city and the university.

“The new auditorium of the Southern Illinois Normal University was opened formally by an ex-president of the United States before the greatest audience that has ever assembled in one building in Southern Illinois,” the article read. “The record attendance at a single meeting of the Southern Illinois Teacher’s Association has been broken and a high water mark of attendance set that will probably not soon be broken.”

Taft began his speech by referring to the beautiful new auditorium, and then spoke of events pertaining to World War I, which the United States had entered one year earlier, on April 6, 1917. He closed his memorable moment on campus with a parting call for young and old people alike to continue the sacrifice for freedom.

“No matter how great the sacrifice we are called upon to make, no matter how much treasure we destroy, no matter how many lives we lose of those we love, we should thank God that the cause is worthy of them all,” Taft said. The war would end on Nov. 11, 1918.

1958 student convocation ceremony in Shryock Auditorium.

The legacy of important speeches at Shryock continued with President Harry S. Truman visiting campus on Sept. 30, 1948. An estimated 4,000 people crowded into Shryock, with thousands more lining the streets and listening over loud speakers as the President addressed the city.

The Daily Egyptian (previously The Egyptian of Southern Illinois University) reported, “An interesting feature of the visit was the appearance of Mrs. Colonel F.A. Wells of DuQuoin, who is a cousin of the president and who had not seen the president in 34 years.”

Just a few years later on May 5, 1954, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt spoke to an overflowing group of students, faculty and townspeople in the regal auditorium.

Speaking without notes, Mrs. Roosevelt passionately talked of the United Nations and the need for Americans to understand the purpose of the global organization. During her visit, she also spent time at the home of President and Mrs. D. W. Morris.

Vice President Richard Nixon presenting at Shryock, with his wife Pat Nixon and SIU President and Mrs. D.W. Morris behind him.

Vice President Richard Nixon also spoke on the now prestigious Shryock stage on October 24, 1956. He came with his wife, Pat Nixon, and gave a rousing speech pertaining to the Eisenhower-Nixon campaign.

Growing into a performing hall

A women’s choir performing on the steps of Shryock Auditorium.

The stalwart building stands as a beacon on campus, with students first attending mandatory chapel services and freshman convocations in Shryock, while later enjoying light-hearted fun and entertainment.

After the university outgrew the building for graduations and campus-wide meetings, it transformed into a dazzling show hall, hosting 100-200 events each year. Availability for the stately building would disappear quickly, with national tours, local shows, on-campus programs and community events all clamoring for a spot on the grandiose stage.

2005 Sunset Concert featuring blues singer Nora Jean Bruso

At the center of Southern Illinois entertainment, Shryock would bring in guest artists such as Stevie Ray Vaughn, Double Trouble, The Cats, Depeche Mode, Widespread Panic, Moscow Festival Ballet, Parsons Dance Company, Jesse McCartney, and many others.

In recent years, Shryock has seen numerous shows from SIU’s School of Music and Theater Department, along with serving as a site for the beloved Carbondale Sunset Concert series.

‘Henry,’ the alleged ghost of Shryock

On the morning of April 13, 1935, President Shryock was working quietly at his desk, as he often did, when he suddenly suffered a fatal heart attack. As students started gathering for the morning chapel service, news of the beloved president’s death slipped out.

Mourners assembled to honor the late president at his funeral held at the auditorium, but while many said their last goodbye to the campus hero, others quietly wondered if he ever really left.

Unpredictable and mysterious light that might hint at the possibility of Henry the Ghost of Shryock.

Over the last 84 years, students have whispered of mysterious footsteps coming from nowhere, as well as items suddenly disappearing and random doors unexpectedly opening and closing. An unexplained and unpredictable stage light also remains continuously lit, despite numerous attempts to turn it off.

While not yet a confirmed member of the campus family, Henry, the ghost of Shryock, is also not disproven. The mystery ebbs and flows with time, but writers such as Bruce Cline in his book, “History, Mystery and Hauntings of Southern Illinois,” still speculate about the possibility of supernatural activity in the old building.

In honor of President Henry Shryock, the building officially took his name following his sudden death. Shryock served as president for 22 years.

Renovations keep Shryock shining

The impressive building initially boasted 1,440 seats, with state of the art equipment and setup. A remodel in 1969 cost a few seats, while the addition of the 58-rank Reuter pipe organ in 1970 and new air conditioning unit a few years later took the space of another 200 seats.

The stage saw a new update in 2002, adding a spring dance floor for professional performers and various unique concerts. Most recently, a full electrical overhaul brought fresh life to the sound and lights of the prominent stage.

The million-dollar electrical project reached completion about five years ago, bringing the historic building into the 21st century.

“When you are trying to control lights for concerts and events, you want to turn one on at a time; before the reconstruction I could turn on maybe 30 at a time,” Shryock’s technical director Seth Kohlhaas said. “We got a whole new power system, so I went from having 37 dimmers, to 296.”

About 15 years ago, all of the detailed plasterwork had a face-lift, with continual upkeep managed by SIU’s Physical Plant and Service Operations.

Prominent organ and classic design sets the building apart

An aerial view of Shryock auditorium, set between the Allyn Building and Altgeld Hall with Faner Hall in the background.

While often catching the shadows from the looming castle-like walls of Altgeld Hall, Shryock’s curvaceous design and imposing dome roof set her apart from her sister buildings on campus.

Built on a granite base and trimmed in terracotta, an ancient style of clay-based roofing tiles, Shyrock is a picture of neoclassical architecture.

The rich heavy curtains on the interior of the auditorium act as a blackout and a protectant against the sun fading the bright carpets and seats, while the sweeping staircases and stately doorways give a certain elegance to the auditorium.

Around the 1960s, administrators decided to start hosting shows during the day. This presented a problem with the light shining through the stain glass, prompting the replacement of the glass with elaborate latticework around the dome.

Organ performance at Shryock.

“Originally, the center dome of Shryock was stained glass,” Kohlhaas said. “That stained glass is now held in special collections at the University Museum. At times, they will put parts of it out on display.”

A special addition joined the auditorium in 1970, a 3,312 Reuter pipe organ originally named Opus 1741. Designed and operated by former SIU professor Marianne Webb, the organ received a new name in Webb’s honor in 2001. Paul Jacobs, Grammy Award-winning artist from New York City, played the organ in remembrance of Webb after her death in 2013.

The original Reuters organ designed by the late Marianna Webb and eventually named in her honor.

With pipes stretching from the ceiling to the floor, the massive organ makes quite a statement in the auditorium. Currently, SIU assistant professor James Reifinger serves as the campus organist, training students and performing with various groups and ensembles.

More than a building

Outwardly, Shryock appears to be structure made of brick and stone, but inwardly it tells the story of hard work, dedication and dreams of countless individuals. 

“Shryock is more than a building, it’s really about the people in it,” Kohlhaas said.

Hosting a large show is no cakewalk. Technical work starts months before the opening, while show day requires an electrician to hook up power, four to five iron workers to hang chains and other items from the ceiling, 20-100 staff members to load in a show, a fork lift driver, several light and sound technicians, concessions stand attendees, ushers and ticket managers.

Every year Kohlhaas trains his own group of student workers, who often go from knowing nothing about performance management to becoming vital members of the technical team.

101 years of Shryock

A modern day concert at Shryock.

Last year marked the 100th year of Shryock, with celebrations and a concert highlighting the momentous anniversary. SIU’s Wind Ensemble, Concert Choir and SIU Jazz Orchestra all performed at the anniversary concert on Oct. 5, 2017, while other campus events commemorated the milestone.

Moving toward the future

Iconic fountain in front of Shryock in the middle of Old Campus.

While steeped in history, Shryock is far from outdated. Acting as a concert and recital hall, both on and off campus groups regularly rent the regal building for a variety of shows and events. Every year the auditorium hosts Honors Day, the Law School’s commencement ceremony, the White Coat ceremony, scholarship nights and much more.

With 60-70 events at the auditorium each year, the technical, ticketing and maintenance teams stay on their toes. This year, the schedule is full of weddings, festivals, concerts, performances and special events.

Moving forward, Kohlhaas plans for the next hundred years of Shryock to reflect all the glory of years past. Hopeful plans include continual updates and renovations to the structure, along with a steady flow of intriguing entertainment performances.

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