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June 5, 2014

MARK BENNETT: Returning the dome to Normal

Indiana State seeking photo of original Normal Hall dome to aid in restoration

TERRE HAUTE — Folks at Indiana State University haven’t summoned Indiana Jones, yet.

The legendary fictional professor would be intrigued by their quest, though.

They’re not hunting a lost ark, stones or the Holy Grail. ISU seeks a photograph of a spectacular stained-glass dome honoring 24 philosophers and educators atop Normal Hall, the original campus library. Normal Hall opened in 1910. It remains the oldest academic building on campus and the last surviving link to the era when the institution was known as Indiana State Normal School, a mecca for future teachers.

“It’s the closest thing we have to the beginnings of our heritage,” said Teresa Exline, ISU President Daniel Bradley’s chief of staff.

But Normal Hall last served as a library in 1973. Since then, the 65,390-square-foot structure made from Hoosier limestone has been utilized for storage and office space.

And its centerpiece, the multi-colored dome created by famed Chicago designer Louis J. Millet, has been absent for more than a half-century. Its 24 panels were unceremoniously removed in the 1950s. Many broke in the process. A few survived years in storage intact, and preservation-minded university staffers in the ’70s got them moved to the new Cunningham Memorial Library, where the panels hung on display, safely.

Back in Normal Hall, a false ceiling was installed to cover the dome’s empty shell.

Human eyes haven’t gazed up at the full dome since.

By autumn 2015, they will again.

A renovation of Normal Hall will transform it into the University College, where young students can find tutoring, advice and services to keep them on track toward graduating. They’ll study at tall, early 20th-century tables, lit by period-style lamps. “It will be a very natural throwback to its original purpose,” Exline said. That guidance to help students get their degrees “fits really well with the state’s goals,” she added.

The restored dome will hover above those academic activities, giving ISU a much-needed historical connection to its roots. First, though, a mystery must be solved.

No definitive photographs of the dome have been found. No complete list of the two-dozen philosophers and educators has been located, either. A general description from the Normal Hall dedication program in 1910 contained clues about its design and a few of the names emblazoned on the stained-glass panels.

“It has been [a mystery],” Exline said, standing beside the dome’s arches in the stuffy Normal Hall attic Wednesday morning. “But now, we’re closing in on it.”

They kept digging. Exline combed through the papers of then-Normal School President William Parsons, trying to find the name of the dome’s artist and designer. She discovered the minutes from the college’s board of directors meeting in which the dome bid was awarded, revealing Millet as the chosen designer. The investigative trail didn’t yield a photo of the stained-glass or a detailed list of its honored philosophers and academics.

As he often does, Terre Haute historian Mike McCormick helped unravel the riddle. The longtime attorney came across an early 1900s edition of The Spectator, a Terre Haute newspaper, containing the names of the wise guys immortalized in the stained-glass panels. Inexplicably, the Spectator article listed 22, not 24. Six were Indiana educators, such as New Harmony “utopia” innovator Richard Owen, Indiana public schools pioneer Caleb Mills, and Parsons, who hesitantly accepted a spot on the dome when students and faculty demanded it. Sixteen others on the Spectator’s list included philosophers Confucius, Socrates, Plato, Kant and Aristotle. A 23rd name on the dome, philosopher Sophocles, turned up in an archived column McCormick had written for the Tribune-Star in 2008.

That leaves one missing name. Possibilities abound. At the zenith of the original dome was an oil reproduction of Italian artist Raphael’s Philosophy painting, which featured other acclaimed thinkers — such as Ptolemy and Pythagoras — not among those 23 names McCormick, Exline and ISU amassed.

The dome re-creation — approximately a $1 million portion of the $16 million Normal Hall renovation — will be handled by Conrad Schmitt Studios, noted Wisconsin-based renovators of historic structures and artwork. The same firm restored the dome at West Baden Springs Hotel. “The key [to the project] is having Conrad Schmitt, who’s done this across the world,” said Bryan Duncan, ISU’s director of capital planning and improvements. The company brought in a researcher to conduct a historical analysis of Normal Hall to deduce details such as paint finishes and colors used in the early 20th century, Exline said.

The renovation, a priority by Bradley in the ISU master plan, has energetic drivers. Hoosier preservationist Gayle Cook helped link ISU with Conrad Schmitt, for example. Several interested Sycamore backers gathered last month for a reception hosted by ISU English professor and author Michael Shelden and his wife in Bloomington, where details of the project were highlighted. The mystery of the dome’s images and names generated plenty of talk.

Soon, the list of philosophers and educators must be finalized as Conrad Schmitt works to reconstruct the dome, using its remaining intact panels and newly created sections for the unveiling of the refurbished Normal Hall on ISU’s 2015 Homecoming weekend. If the 24th isn’t confirmed and no pictures are unearthed, the 21st-century designers will have to read their 20th-century predecessors’ minds.

In the meantime, Exline, McCormick and others continue searching.

“You start feeling like Nancy Drew, after a while,” Exline said.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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