Thanks to divine intervention and impossible Irish luck, I got into the University of Illinois, and graduated. I have a diploma, even.
Like most alumni, I return to campus now and then. I revisit certain buildings and am awestruck by how young the students are. That was me, 40 years ago.
I walk through the Illini Union, then proceed down the Quad to places I knew: Lincoln Hall, recently restored to its original splendor; Davenport Hall, once the College of Agriculture; and Gregory Hall, home to the journalism school.
I spent most of my time in gloomy Gregory Hall, taking notes, attending lectures and pounding manual typewriters.
But one of my favorite campus landmarks isn’t a building … it’s a tiny part of a building. It is the “Hallene Gateway,” which consists of the sandstone columns and archway that once formed the front entrance to Main Hall.
From 1873 until 1938, Main Hall — also called “University Hall” and the “Main Building” — stood just south of where the Illini Union now stands.
Four stories tall, 214 feet long and 112 feet high, Main Hall was the bustling hub of the U of I. Every student had classes in it and its façade symbolized the university.
Built of red brick, with stone trim and a Mansard roof, Main Hall had 60 large rooms, including lecture halls, classrooms, reading rooms, labs, museums, libraries and a chapel. For decades, it was filled with the voices and footsteps of students, the click of chalk on blackboards … and dreams, dreams, dreams.
By 1938, Main Hall was showing its age. When a classroom ceiling fell, the decision was made to demolish the whole building. Today’s Colonial-style Illini Union followed.
Fortunately, someone saved the front entranceway to Main Hall, which includes the stone slab that features the university motto: “Learning and Labor.”