The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

April 13, 2014

Archway touches alum's heart


The Commercial-News

---- — 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.”

The pieces were stored behind the Architecture Building for years, then hauled to the university’s Robert Allerton Park and unloaded about 50 yards from the maintenance shed. Trees and raspberry bushes slowly hid them from view.

In 1994, Professor David Garner heard about them and decided to take a look. A backhoe was used to extract the frieze, bases, column shafts and capitals from the dirt. Garner recalled that his “heart was racing” as the long-forgotten artifacts emerged.

Alumni Alan and Phyllis Welsh Hallene donated money needed to reconstruct the portal on Lincoln Avenue. The “Hallene Gateway,” dedicated in 1998, has become a much-photographed campus landmark.

When I visit it, I feel connected to the original “Illinois Industrial University.” As I walk beneath the same arch that generations of students walked beneath, I become part of the pageant, part of history.

Interestingly enough, an exact duplicate of Main Hall still stands at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. That school bought the building plans in 1873 and its “Main Building” was dedicated in 1875. Restored in 1991, it remains an essential classroom structure … alive and full of dreams.

Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at irishhiker@aol.com.