Now vacant, Rambo House once home to economics hub
In the shadow of Illinois State’s shiny new Student Fitness Center stands an empty brick building called Rambo House, where Wanda Rae (Bryant) Powell ’55 learned to shampoo furniture.
It was a gold chair, to be exact, one of many projects assigned to Powell during her nine-week stay at Rambo, a live-in home economics residence that opened in 1939. Frances Conkey was Rambo’s on-site director when Powell moved in in 1954, and Conkey literally wore white gloves to spot dirty areas.
“She was a good gal,” Powell says. “It was a fun time, but we had to work too.”
Today, Rambo House sits vacant on University Street, just behind Fell Hall, targeted for demolition someday soon, in part because of mold and disabled accessibility issues. But for three decades, Rambo (also known as Home Management House) was home to senior female students who worked as a team to put their home economics coursework to practical use. In a given year, 48 women would live there.
Rambo, a red brick building of Georgian architecture, was built for $56,000 and opened in 1939. It was Illinois State Normal University’s answer to a federal law mandating requirements for the training of home economics teachers – specifically that each senior female had to live in a home-management house for nine weeks.
Rambo was split into two halves – one side powered with electricity, the other running on gas. Bedrooms were upstairs, laundry was in the basement, and each half had a living room, kitchen and dining room. Powell remembers practicing what she learned in class – like which foods go together – in a real-world setting.
Faculty from other departments would come to Rambo for parties planned and hosted by the residents, said Margaret Ann Hayden, a retired professor from the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, formerly known as the Department of Home Economics. Hayden’s teaching assignment when she was first hired in 1967 at age 25 included time as Rambo’s director, living with students only a few years younger.
“It helped them with their etiquette, their professionalism, how to handle themselves in a professional manner,” said Hayden. “The fact that they had to plan, and had to plan with others in their group, that’s always healthy.”
Rambo was named for the first head of the Home Economics Department, Jessie E. Rambo. It was one of several facilities constructed during the “building boom” years of Illinois State President Raymond W. Fairchild, who was the University’s leader from 1933-55, said University Archivist April Anderson.
“It was kind of a little bubble for those students (in Rambo House). They had classes elsewhere, but their life was in that building,” said Anderson.
Powell made history when she moved in to finish her home economics degree, because she brought her 18-month-old daughter, Diana, with her. Powell’s Rambo housemates helped take care of Diana, even making her a cheerleader outfit with a big “N” for “Normal.” Today, Diana (Powell) Nelson ’75, ’98 works for Illinois State’s Motorcycle Safety program.
“The girls were just wonderful with her,” said Powell, who would later go on to teach home economics in schools in Illinois and Florida. “If they were in child development, she was their guinea pig.”
Rambo House underwent extensive remodeling in the 1960s, but its time was short. In 1972, when such rigorous home economics training was no longer required, Rambo House was converted into office space for the University’s alumni and development staffs. It has been unoccupied since around 2005.
Now, Rambo House is on the list for demolition, says Facilities Management Director Chuck Scott. The building has already been stripped of any salvageable lighting fixtures and other materials, he said.
Ryan Denham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.