Monmouth College’s original presidential home twice saw tragedy
MONMOUTH, Ill. — For the first 30 years of its existence, Monmouth College had no home for its presidents, but in August 1885 the College Senate voted to expend $5,000 to erect a residence on the campus for the family of the Rev. Jackson B. McMichael, then in his seventh year as president.
The Senate turned to renowned Burlington architect Charles A. Dunham to design the home. Born in Connecticut in 1830, Dunham established an office in Burlington in 1856. A lifelong student of architecture, he purportedly had the largest architectural library west of Chicago. He was known for designing imposing courthouses and churches throughout the Midwest.
The Senate’s specifications called for a two-story home on the southeast corner of Broadway and 9th Street. Dunham designed a first floor with six rooms — a parlor, living room, kitchen, pantry, president’s study and bedroom. On the second floor were four bedrooms, a bathroom and stairs to a spacious attic. There were bay windows on the house’s east and west sides, and a wraparound porch, 8 feet wide, with a balcony above.
President McMichael personally supervised the construction project, which was awarded to W. S. Holmes of Burlington, with stone and brick work by J. H. Richey of Monmouth. McMichael and his wife, Mary, moved in the following spring, along with their children, Mary Grace, 11; William, 17; John, 20; and Thomas, 22, who would graduate from Monmouth College that year.
The elegant house was the pride of the young Monmouth College, as it was only the second structure built on the campus — just a stone’s throw from the recitation hall. The McMichaels hosted popular teas and receptions in the spacious parlor and living room.
It was a place of great happiness, but darkness descended on the house in the spring of 1892, when the youngest McMichael daughter, Grace — a popular freshman at the college — contracted intestinal tuberculosis and steadily weakened. In her final hours, she sent a message to her fellow classmates: “Tell them how much I loved them all, and how I thank them for being so good to me. Tell them to be careful how they live, for none of them know how soon they will follow me.” On the afternoon of Sunday, May 1, the stillness of the Sabbath was interrupted when the college bell tolled her passing.
In 1897, the house began a new chapter, when the Rev. Samuel Ross Lyons, an 1877 Monmouth graduate, and his family moved in. Along with his wife, Anna, there were two daughters from a previous marriage, three young children from his current marriage, and his brother, James.
It was not long before political troubles began between President Lyons and the faculty. The college had fallen on difficult financial times and Lyons sought to replace older faculty with younger faculty, willing to work at lower salaries. The college’s charter, however, had given extraordinary power to the faculty, and although Lyons had the trustees on his side, the faculty ultimately prevailed.
Anna Lyons, who was 35 and known as a gifted, talented and sociable lady, had suffered a severe attack of nervous prostration 12 years earlier. Recently, she had undergone more health problems, and the social ostracization she and her husband had received from faculty and their wives may have contributed to severe depression.
On April 10, 1901, President Lyons was attending a Presbytery meeting in Biggsville. At 1:30, Mrs. Lyons came downstairs to ask her 15-year-old daughter, Hattie, to go downtown on an errand, then went back upstairs to lie down. An hour later, her son Robert came in to ask for his mother and was told she was asleep in the study. When Hattie returned from the errand, she couldn’t find her mother and assumed she was visiting with neighbors.
At 5 o’clock, Hattie became worried and wondered if her mother had gone to the attic to retrieve something and passed out. She climbed the stairs and was horrified to find her mother hanging from a rafter. She had wrapped a rope twice around her neck, thrown it over a rafter and tied a bow under her chin. At her feet was a wooden cracker box, tuned on its side. Her neck was broken, and she had bled profusely from the mouth and nose.
Neighbors were called and Mrs. Lyons was cut down. President Lyons was called and returned to Monmouth in shock. A brief private funeral was held at the home the following evening and her body was sent by train to be interred in her native Dayton, Ohio. The campus community was bereft, and the entire male student body marched in front of the hearse on the way to the depot.
Lyons resigned his position in June and was allowed to remain in the house until September. The following year, a familiar family once again occupied the residence, as Thomas McMichael, the son of Jackson McMichael, was elected Monmouth’s new president.
A few years later, a grand Queen Anne-style residence directly across from the college was acquired to become a new president’s home, but World War I interrupted. The building, known as Woodbine Cottage, became a barracks for the Student Army Training Corps unit then occupying the campus. Following the war, however, President and Mrs. McMichael finally moved across the street to the Woodbine, leaving the original president’s house vacant.
It was the perfect opportunity to address a big problem — the shortage of campus housing for young women. On Sept. 24, 1919, the student body and faculty gathered by invitation on the lawn in front of the old house for a program at which the new name of the facility would be revealed. The program was composed of clever songs and skits that kept the audience guessing. Finally, the housemother, who was acting as emcee, announced that if the audience would look heavenward they would see the sign. A student named Mabel Wright appeared on the balcony and pronounced the words, “I christen thee, ‘The Terrace.’”
Sixteen college girls occupied The Terrace, along with various unmarried women faculty members.
In the 1930s, the second floor was converted to chapter rooms for the four Monmouth sororities — Pi Beta Phi, Kappa Kappa Gamma, Alpha Xi Delta and Kappa Delta. In 1937, the chapters undertook a massive decorating campaign, planned by interior decorators. Pi Phi hung wine-colored drapes against silver-blue walls; Alpha Xi used plaid drapes with maple chairs; Kappa installed built-in white benches with blue walls; and KD installed magnolia-print drapes and a white leather desk.
In the spring of 1954, it was announced that a new science hall would one day be built on the southeast corner of campus and The Terrace would be razed. Sorority chapter rooms were moved to Marshall Hall, two blocks west, which had most recently been used to house married veterans.
A science hall was never built on the lot, but in 1990, the Wells Theater was constructed just north of the site of the house that for 70 years housed presidents, faculty, students and Greek organizations.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.