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Book Celebrates Planning, Building of U of I Campus
Illinois Ag Connection - 07/13/2017

When the University of Illinois was established, its physical presence consisted of 10 acres for its main campus and a ramshackle five-story building, nicknamed The Elephant, located where the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology now sits on the north end of campus.

As the U. of I. celebrates its 150th birthday, the campus now consists of 4,550 acres (excluding the farms) and 647 buildings.

A recently released book -- "An Illini Place -- Building the University of Illinois Campus," published by the University of Illinois Press -- traces the history of the physical place, including the many plans for the look and expansion of the campus, the architectural style of its buildings and where they would be located.

The book was written by Lex Tate, who served as the associate director of the Office for University Relations and is an adjunct lecturer in journalism, and John Franch, a researcher, writer and archivist. The book covers the major planning phases and buildings, as well as "the neighborhood" of Green Street and the areas surrounding campus where students slept, ate and prayed; the gift buildings whose construction was paid for by donors; and the physical icons of the campus -- most importantly the Main Quad.

"I have a real affection for the place of the campus, as well as the important things that happen there," Tate said.

There were numerous plans for the development of the campus, but from the beginning they established certain principles that have remained throughout the university's history, including the idea that the U. of I. would grow to the south. Its first major new building, University Hall (built in 1874 and demolished in 1938), was located just south of Green Street, where the Illini Union is now, and its construction began the southward expansion of the campus. Among the most important early decisions was the siting of the Auditorium, creating a clearly defined Main Quad.

The plans contained some bad ideas as well, including an early one that called for placing a large building bisecting the Quad -- a move that would have eliminated the university's "front yard." Other ideas that were abandoned include creating a lake on the Quad, building on the land occupied by Mount Hope Cemetery and replacing the Auditorium with a high-rise classroom-office building.

Tate and Franch wrote that the planning and building of the campus were driven by events such as the enrollment boom following World War I, during which the Agriculture Building (Mumford Hall) and the Architecture Building were designed and built. The buildings set the signature style of architecture for the university -- Georgian Revival, featuring massive red brick buildings with horizontal limestone trim, steep roofs, dormers and many mock chimneys.

Another period of heavy growth followed World War II, but this time many buildings were Modernist rectangles with little decoration -- the Art and Design Building and the "Six-Pack" residence halls, for example.

The $40 million gift from Arnold Beckman in 1985 to build the Beckman Institute set off another surge of campus planning, with the removal of Burrill Avenue between Springfield Avenue and Green Street, the establishment of the Beckman and Bardeen quads, landscaping along the Boneyard Creek and the construction of new buildings on the engineering campus.

The Beckman gift highlights the importance of partnerships with private donors in helping pay for new buildings on campus. Although the gift was, at the time, the largest donation by a private individual to a public university, Tate and Franch wrote, the first such donation came in 1917. Thomas J. Smith gave 770 acres of farmland and $215,000 to build Smith Memorial Hall in honor of his late wife, Tina Weedon Smith.

The book describes 33 buildings, sports complexes or practice fields that were built, renovated or maintained with private donations.

"Many people don't appreciate how many there are and how important they are, and the surge of them in the 1980s," Tate said.

Tate and Franch wrote 12 sidebars -- including a history of the brick used for campus buildings in a color that came to be called "University Blend" -- that are published on a companion website. The website also includes profiles of 10 "leading men" who were crucial in the development of the campus. Online appendices list an inventory of major buildings, housing and demolished buildings.

"Watching the campus develop over the last 50 years has been remarkable," Tate said. "That is one-third of the lifetime of the university that I've been attached to the university, either as a student or working there or as an alum. I think they've mostly been good changes."

One building in particular reminds her of the history of the place. Mumford House, built in 1870, was part of the southern expansion of the campus and was home to several deans of the agriculture college.

"When you walk by and look at Mumford House, it belongs there as a reminder for everyone who crosses its path that this was an ag school first and foremost," Tate said.

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