CHAMPAIGN – For decades, Illini fans could always count on one thing (if not a victory) when they visited Memorial Stadium or Assembly Hall.
Just to the south was a sharp reminder – for the eyes and nose – of the rich agricultural heritage of the University of Illinois.
Horses, cows and sheep grazed just across St. Mary's Road, housed in graceful early 20th-century barns. The largest, and most impressive, was the historic beef barn, a landmark for UI students and alums.
"It always said, 'This is a land-grant university.' Agriculture is important not only to the university but also to the state of Illinois," said Doug Parrett, UI professor of animal sciences and manager of beef operations.
The sheep barn is gone now, just a few head of cattle remain, and the beef barn will soon be replaced by a southward extension of Fourth Street as the UI prepares to expand the nearby research park.
What is to become of the grand structure remains to be seen. The university is offering to sell the 1917 barn for $1, plus a tax-deductible contribution of $1,000 or more to its new preservation fund, to anyone willing to take it apart and reassemble it at an approved site. Proposals are due by 2 p.m. Oct. 27, and bidders must first attend an Oct. 21 site visit.
Because the barn is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, it would have to be reconstructed, though the one-story addition to the east could be taken apart and used for materials, said Melvyn Skvarla, the UI's historic preservation officer.
It won't be an easy job. One UI agriculture graduate who has moved other barns in Illinois estimated it would cost $200,000 to take the barn apart and relocate it, Parrett said.
Parrett and others would love to see it moved across Windsor Road to be part of the new south farms. But Skvarla said it wouldn't be cost-effective for the university. With new state-of-the-art beef research facilities south of Curtis Road, "we have no use for it," he said.
"The question is, what do you do with a grand structure that typifies agriculture for the last 75 years?" Parrett said. "It's a spectacular structure, but we had to kind of quit using it. I'm not sure how they make that call. It would be awesome if someone stepped forward and said, 'I'm going to reuse it.'"
The 60-by-87-foot barn, with its gable Dutch roof and charming cupolas, is striking from the outside. But its true value lies within – the 8-by-8 timber posts, the soaring beamed roof 54 feet high at the apex, the enormous hay loft with its floor made of 2-by-4s turned on their sides.
Jim Sasser of Champaign, who spent $25,000 dismantling and moving the UI's old sheep barn, said the beef barn would make a great ski lodge in Colorado.
"I'd love to take it down and make a hotel out of it," he said, but "they'd have to pay me. I can't afford to take it down."
Standing inside the loft, he sees the potential for a ballroom, conference center, hotel or even a clubhouse for the planned UI golf course.
"It would make a wonderful restaurant," Skvarla agreed. "It could be spectacular."
The UI has partnered with developer Peter Fox to build a new hotel, restaurant and conference center down the street. But the hotel and conference center will be patterned after the research park across First Street, and the restaurant is supposed to blend with both, said Laura Frerichs of Fox Development Corp.
"I don't see a seamless way to integrate that barn into the complex at this time," she said. "It might be a challenge to build a hotel around a barn."
For Parrett and others, it's the end of an era. The beef barn was the center of agricultural life at the UI for decades, but "we outgrew it," he said.
Research needs have changed, with protocols requiring much larger groups of animals to test new feed mixtures. The old barn held 80 animals, while the new facility accommodates 800, he said.
Parrett is thrilled with the new facility in southeast Urbana. But he looks wistfully at the barn where the basketball backboard he installed as an undergrad still hangs in the loft.
"There's such a finality to it all," he said.