Irion Hall has been the most versatile of campus buildings, serving at various points in its century-long history as Elmhurst College’s chapel, its library, its gymnasium, and even as housing for a few generations of the College’s students. On September 29, to celebrate that history, the building took on yet another role. It was the scene of a swinging and charmingly crowded house party, with entertainment provided by the current tenants, the students of Elmhurst’s acclaimed music department.
The department opened its practice rooms and rehearsal spaces for the occasion, offering brief sets by 15 student ensembles on a variety of stages around the building.
In the basement band room that once held the pommel horses and medicine balls of the College’s pre–World War I gymnasium, visitors got an intimate view of the renowned Elmhurst College Jazz Band at work. In the second floor choral room, formerly student apartments, they heard the College’s Concert Choir sing. And in Buik Recital Hall, once the College’s chapel, the Gretsch Electric Guitar Ensemble produced a spirited set under the stern gaze of a stained-glass Moses, one of four Biblical figures left over from the space’s previous incarnation.
The mashup of past, present and future was entirely intentional.
“We’re trying something different,” said Peter Griffin, the music department’s chair, as the party was getting under way. “We’re giving our students the chance to show this audience what they can do, and we’re celebrating the history of this building at the same time.”
For fans of the College’s ensembles, the evening was a chance to hear students play in close quarters and in their natural habitats. One of those fans was the College’s president, S. Alan Ray. Paraphrasing Hemingway, he called the creative work coming out of Irion Hall “a vibrating feast.” Ray recalled hearing the jazz band play for one of the College’s new student convocations. “The only way I can describe the effect of that performance is to say, ‘They rocked,’” Ray told the audience in Buik Recital Hall. “I told the new students that we value excellence here, and that if they wanted to see a model of excellence, they only had to look as far as the Jazz Band and the Elmhurst College music department.”
The department, which has about 200 music majors, has called Irion Hall home since 1928, but only recently did it take over sole tenancy of the building. The building was dedicated on June 2, 1912, and named for Daniel Irion, Elmhurst’s fourth president and the first American-born leader of the College. He taught religion and ancient history at Elmhurst and, as was the common practice at the school then, he addressed his students only in German.
Irion lived in the building named for him; the porch that still overlooks Prospect Avenue was called the President’s Porch. The building also housed about 100 students. Showers, however, were not added until 1924.
The last student residents moved out of Irion Hall in 1975, opening space for the growth of the music department, aided by a multi-million-dollar renovation in 1979. Improvements continue. The department recently upgraded its computer labs and its classroom technology. It also added a new Kawai grand piano. The instrument made its Irion Hall debut at the 100th anniversary party, played by David DeVasto, one of the department’s composition and theory faculty members.
As the music department has prospered, it has filled every available square inch of the century-old building. Students learn to make way in the narrow staircases and corridors for a passing tuba.
“It’s a busy place, and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Griffin said as he picked his way through the crowded lobby during the celebration.
And even for students new to the department, the traces of Irion Hall’s history are hard to miss. “There are some odd spaces, but it’s kind of cool to have that oddity factor,” said Alex Whalen, a jazz studies major from Chatham, Illinois, who had just completed his first gig as a member of the Gretsch Guitar Ensemble in Buik Recital Hall. “It makes for a nice, relaxed environment. It’s a place where we can learn from each other and have a sense of community.”
On a night filled with music, that was a sentiment worth celebrating.