If you can find your way through the obstacle course, this is an ideal time to get reacquainted with one of the best things about living in East Central Illinois: walking around the heart of the University of Illinois campus.
All over the central campus — especially on its west and south sides — streets, sidewalks and bike lanes are closed for repairs. Want to visit Lincoln Hall? You’re best off parking on the Urbana side of the Quad and strolling over to the west side. The Ice Arena? No way, the sidewalk is torn up, and the building is closed for the summer. When I peeked in there on a warm day last week, the ice was melting, and it was still a cool refuge.
But with a little extra effort, this is an excellent time to get to a less crowded campus and enjoy the flowers, fountains and fragrance of flowering trees.
Let’s start our walking tour at Alma Mater, the large 1929 sculpture by Lorado Taft that serves as a welcome to campus at Green and Wright streets. For more than 30 years, though, it was in obscured space behind Foellinger Auditorium. It’s in a better place now.
Just south of Taft’s great work is the 123-year-old Altgeld Hall with its bell tower and marvelous second-floor circulation room. Altgeld originally was the university library, and the circulation room once was topped by a stained-glass window; it was removed more than 50 years ago. In 1927, Altgeld became home of the School of Law, and its interior dome is inscribed with the names of U.S. Supreme Court justices, an homage to the building’s second use. All of this, along with a series of murals around what is now the mathematics library, is visible from a third-floor balcony.
Outside of Altgeld is usually where you will find the greatest population of the seemingly fearless squirrels that populate the campus. These varmints could be about the 100th generation of the squirrels that UI President Andrew Draper brought to campus in 1901.
East of Altgeld is the Illini Union, which opened in February 1941. A year later, Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin Roosevelt, cut a cake to celebrate the building’s birthday. It had been built in part with money from the Roosevelt-era Public Works Administration. The Union has since been expanded and remodeled and offers a grand view of the Quad.
East of the Union is the newly remodeled Natural History Building, a modern miracle in that a decrepit 1890s structure has been reborn as a high-tech, 21st century classroom space.
In a shady spot between the Union, Altgeld and the Henry Administration Building lies the gravesite of John Milton Gregory, the first president of the UI (first known as the Illinois Industrial University). Gregory died in 1898, He’s the only UI president buried on campus, although former Presidents Edmund James, David Kinley, Arthur Cutts Willard and David Dodds Henry are buried nearby at Roselawn or Mount Hope cemeteries.
South of Gregory’s grave is the Henry Administration Building, which for most of its life was simply the Administration Building. This is a relatively sterile building, named for the president who led the UI through its 16 most vigorous and turbulent years. But a third-floor area features the Hall of Presidents, with portraits of each of the university’s leaders. For what it’s worth, the portraits of the earlier leaders are much larger than the recent ones.
South of Henry is the English Building, which originally was known as the Woman’s Building and had a dormitory, swimming pool and gymnasium. It became the English Building in 1956, and may be best known today for its wonderfully creaky wood floors.
South of the English Building is the only building on campus named for a U.S. president, Lincoln Hall. It’s a grand, interesting structure that appears to be just three floors, but there’s a fourth one squeezed in there. There’s also a bust of the president just outside the newly remodeled first-floor theater. The president’s nose is shiny from having been rubbed by thousands of students. A plaque with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address also graces the east entryway.
Near to Lincoln Hall is Foellinger Auditorium, built in 1907. Like Wright Street, it’s mostly closed to traffic. Foellinger is getting a new granite stairway this summer to replace the original.
East of Foellinger is the great Smith Memorial Hall, built in 1917 and paid for by university trustee Thomas J. Smith as a tribute to his wife. On the main floor is a fine performance hall that for 50 years was Krannert Center before there was a Krannert Center.
North of Smith Hall is the Foreign Languages Building, probably the ugliest structure on campus. Some (me) have compared its hulking appearance to the headquarters of the KGB. The less time spent looking at it the better.
Finally, take a stop at the Main Library, which has a number of highlights, including the magnificent second-floor reading room, the university archives, the newspaper library and the first-floor Bronze Tablets, which annually recognize outstanding undergraduate students. Look closely at the tablets, and you’ll see names you may recognize, such as 1965’s Rita Marie Bell, now Illinois Supreme Court Justice Rita Garman of Danville, and 1969’s Timothy V. Johnson, a former congressman from Urbana.
There are many other spaces on the central campus worth a visit this summer. You’ve got about 12 weeks to take your tour.
Tom Kacich’s column appears on Sundays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.