University of Illinois' 'flying saucer' has aged gracefully

How about a round of "Happy Birthday" to Champaign-Urbana's most famous structure?

Monday marks the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking – a remarkably understated one, it turns out – for the still-breathtaking University of Illinois Assembly Hall. For a building that was so unusual and so long-awaited, the beginning of construction on Monday, May 25, 1959, passed with little fanfare.

There were no photographs of dignitaries with ribbon-bedecked shovels, as there had been about 35 years earlier across the street at Memorial Stadium. The governor didn't show up, the university trustees were nowhere to be seen, even the president of the university must have been busy with something else.

Some heavy equipment operator whose name was never recorded took a big bite out of the earth that morning and work began on a structure that looks nowhere near 50 years old, or more accurately, 46 years old.

The only mention in the local newspapers the next day was the coverage of Ray Dickerson's noontime speech to the Champaign Rotary Club. Dickerson, president of Felmley-Dickerson Co., which got the $6.46 million contract to build the Assembly Hall, said he hoped the project could be finished in time for the 1961 state high school basketball tournament. Numerous labor strikes, steel shortages and a statewide construction freeze pushed the completion date to May 3, 1963. But what was two more years to a university that had been waiting since 1940 to build a "sports palace" and a large theater?

From a vantage point 50 years removed, it's surprising how little enthusiasm there was at the time for a building that is still described in superlatives and which last year was cited as among Illinois' most endangered historic places. A June 1959 editorial in the Daily Illini said the design had been "condemned and praised in practically the same breath." And the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors found all kinds of fault with the building.

It predicted it would "stand as a monument to some outmoded concept of university life," and that the money would be better spent on an intramural athletic facility "to promote general physical fitness and a moderate-sized auditorium to promote cultural development." The AAUP also noted that financing of the "assembly hall" depended on a student body of more than 30,000. That's too big, the professors argued.

"We have reached the conclusion that student attendance on this campus should be limited to 24,000 or less. Construction of the assembly hall might bring strong pressure to expand our student body to an undesirable size in order to finance the project," the group said.

The professors were wrong, but they weren't alone. The UI basketball coach at the time, Harry Combes, said that construction of the Assembly Hall would be an asset to the high school basketball finals.

"Of course, we'll never get a building big enough to hold all the people who want to see the tournament. We'd need a building with about 25,000 seats for that," Combes said.

Today, not only is the basketball tournament far removed from the Assembly Hall, but it's also played in a smaller arena that doesn't even fill up for the finals.

For the past half-century, Champaign-Urbana residents have both reveled in the Assembly Hall's architectural notoriety and endured the constant references to an otherworldly origin. In 1959 – when the structure was little more than a hole in the ground – the caption on a News-Gazette photo of the construction site said it resembled "a landing field for a flying saucer" and that replicas of the building compared it to something from Mars or Venus. Even last year, respected Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamen called it "saucer-like" and noted that when the interior lights shine out of its big windows at night the hall looks like the spaceship from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

Call it what you want, the Assembly Hall is still a landmark, still a sensational piece of architecture, practicality and utility, still an engineering marvel. And it will be thus for many more years. It is now the third-oldest basketball arena in the Big Ten, but it still the most exceptional and most recognizable. It has been a friendly home for Illinois basketball, a roomy venue for graduation ceremonies and a serviceable place for concerts and theater performances. It still works well, it is paid for and it's not named for a bankrupt airline, a bailed-out brokerage house or a bank on the financial ropes.

Happy birthday, big round one. You look great for your age.

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at kacich<@>news-gazette.com.

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