Q&A with Lex Tate, Co-author of An Illini Place

tate and franchLex Tate is an adjunct lecturer in journalism and advertising at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and served as associate director of the University of Illinois Office for University Relations. She recently answered some questions about her book An Illini Place: Building the University of Illinois Campus.

Q: How did this book first come about?

Lex Tate: Like so many good things in life, happenstance and serendipity played into my decision to write An Illini Place. Roland Kehe, the retired campus architect, asked if I knew anyone who could/would write a book on campus planning to continue the story from the 1930 book by Tilton & O’Donnell. Crazily, I said I would if Kehe could wait until I retired from the Office for University Relations, the PR operation for the U of I President’s Office and others where I had worked since 1985. Kehe had a proposal that centered on planning; I’m not a planner or an architect so revised the proposal to broaden the reach and appeal of the book and created a budget. Kehe successfully approached the President’s Office, the Chancellor’s Office and the U of I Foundation for money to support research, writing, photography, etc., and we were off and running. Archivist Bill Maher urged me to hire John Franch and, for 10 years, John and I collaborated over gallons of chai latte, hot in the winters and iced in the summer. He is a wonderful searcher and finder of archival and other research matter that undergirds the book and is a good writer. He’s the author of Robber Baron, The Life of Charles Tyson Yerkes, a biography of the mastermind behind the Chicago El and the London Tube who also bankrolled a famous telescope.

Q: Briefly, can you summarize how the campus began and how the first buildings laid the groundwork for how it looks today?

Tate: It’s a story often told, especially in this sesquicentennial year. After a questionable selection process that included effective lobbying of the legislature (e.g., quail and liquor), Champaign County beat out other Illinois cities and counties (with better bids) for the privilege to host the new land-grant university made possible by the 1862 federal law popularly called the Morrill Act. The offer: One five-story second-hand spec building on 10 bleak acres close to where the Beckman Institute is today, about 400 acres farm land south of the cemetery, another 400 acres southeast of Urbana (quickly sold), 160 acres north of the cemetery, rail freight, trees. This was 1867 and before classes started in 1868, the regent, John Milton Gregory, and the newly appointed Board of Trustees wisely bought more land, including a narrow strip of almost 40 acres that ran north-south for one mile from the old spec building, derisively called the “Elephant.”  Although the main Quad was not formed until the seminal 1905-06 Blackall plan, this strip of land set the stage for the campus’s strong north-south orientation. The earliest buildings that followed the Elephant reflected the time: the mechanical building (1872, later demolished), University Hall (1874, taken down to make room for the Illini Union), Botany Greenhouse (1878, later demolished), Chemical Laboratory (1878, now Harker Hall), Drill Hall (1890, now Gym Annex) and Natural History (1893, restored and remodeled 2015-17). There were 15 buildings by 1900, many on the north campus, some to the south. Then, as now, the buildings tie directly to the campus’s work: lots of engineering and agriculture and horticulture, the library (Altgeld), science (Observatory) and a way to power them all–the campus’s first central power plant (1898). Five of the 15 buildings were designed by Nathan C. Ricker, the first architecture graduate in the country and a legend. The early buildings are eclectic in style and somewhat randomly sited.

Q: What are the three thrusts that have driven campus growth and development since 1867 and how have they shaped the campus?

Tate: Campus growth follows the same trajectory as growth and change in the larger society, occasionally augmented by some specific institutional ambition. For example, in the late teens to 1920s, the great U of I President, Edmund Janes James, helped propel significant enrollment hikes from 2,261 students (plus 1,035 in Chicago studying medicine, dentistry and pharmacy) in 1903-04 to 7,500 in 1920-21 (plus 750 in Chicago).

More common, however, are major disruptors, such as the Great Depression, increased female enrollment in college, the GI Bill that opened higher education to WWII military veterans, the huge post-war population growth from 1946-64 that sent Baby Boomers crashing into colleges and universities beginning in 1964, and the demand shift that more broadly democratized the idea of college. The golden triangle of federal, state and private money is no longer perfect; most state legislatures have walked away from their great public universities, which have learned to augment or supplant state funds with significant infusions of donor money.

Two years after the campus opened to students in 1868, 180 men were enrolled, including 55 from Champaign County, seven from Sangamon, nine from Kane and three from Cook.  It was a local school with small appeal. The first year women enrolled, in 1871-72, there were 53 among the 381 total students. By 1903-04, the 2,261 students included 558 women.

Between 1944-45 and 1945-46, fueled by the GI Bill enrollment grew more than 100 percent, to 14,955 students; by 1949-50, more than 22,000 students were enrolled; more than 30,000 enrolled at Urbana-Champaign in 1967, the third year of the Baby Boom Goes to College drama.

What all this meant was intense but episodic campus growth and development of the physical plant: it was build, build, build. Except when it wasn’t. Classroom buildings, such as law, art and design, education, journalism, popped up in the 1950s to 1970s and extended the campus south and west, enlarging its footprint; housing was critical and “high rise” residence halls rose on the far southeast corner of the central campus while the “Six Pack” dominated the western edge; the vet medicine complex claimed space south of Florida Avenue; and intercollegiate athletics and student recreation grabbed central and south land for more facilities.

Q: Who are some of the key architects and planners that have shaped the campus?

Tate: John and I devote an entire chapter to ten men who made great impacts on how the campus looks; that chapter is part of the “web companion” to An Illini Place. The book grew and grew over the years, even after we threw away what would be two chapters on landscaping and the underbelly of the U of I, such as heating and lighting, transportation, garbage, water…all  those hidden functions essential to making the campus a fit place to study, work and live. So a dozen sidebars, a chapter on the ten guys and four appendices are electronic only.

These ten men are logical and simple choices: Edmund James for sheer genius, vision and ambition for what the University of Illinois should become. He (and the Board) hired architect Clarence Blackall to design the auditorium and ended up, happily, with not only a wonderful building (one of 25 built in his presidency) but a campus plan that laid out the strict north-south axis of the campus, the main Quad and outlines of other quads to come. So we rank Ed highly as an instigator, a seer of talent, and an internationalist. By the time he retired, 27 of 100 students were from out-of-state, five from out of country. Blackall is a key planner; Nathan Ricker is a key architect; he designed at least five campus buildings, including Altgeld (then the Library), Harker Hall, and Kenney Gym Annex. Another important planner and architect—and a famous landscape architect—was Charles Adams Platt who also persuaded the Board and other leaders that the campus needed a “look,” and they got it in Georgian revival. He designed 11 buildings here.

John Franch and I are united in the sad belief that James McLaren White, professor, architect, planner, and manager, who served the U of I for 43 years is the forgotten man of the Illini Place. He partnered with Ricker to design the Library (Altgeld Hall) and was the first “supervising architect,” so named by James. In one 13-year run, he played a part in the design or renovation of some 50 campus structures; he is credited as co-designer on the Platt buildings and five campus Urbana-Champaign campus plans. He also did private planning and design work including St. John’s Catholic Church on Armory (in Georgian revival style), the University of Texas at Austin, and Illinois state buildings for national expositions in New York and Oregon. At his death in 1932, there were pledges and statements that something—a grand space, a building, even a bronze tablet on one building—would be named for him. It didn’t happen and to this day, there still isn’t anything on campus that honors this master builder. Shame.

Q: Do you have a favorite story that you uncovered while researching the book?

Tate: John and I began our careers as ink-stained wretches in daily journalism where stories are the currency. We were determined that each chapter should open with a story;  in fact, the whole of An Illini Place ended up jammed with stories old and new. So, the story of Tina Weedon Smith and her husband and campus benefactor leads off the chapter on gift buildings. The story of black students being excluded from housing and eating places is pretty commonly known, but needs retelling. How Kam’s turned from a chicken restaurant into a legendary bar is a fun story. How parents and churches that worried about their kids in a sectarian university helped create the religious foundations that still serve students of faith well is a good story: Newman, Hillel and Wesley were the first in the country. How plans were laid to demolish the Auditorium and replace it with a high-rise classroom and office building. Yikes. So, favorite stories lasted only until the next one emerged from documents and interviews.

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