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URBANA — A historic all-female residence hall complex at the University of Illinois will go coed for the first time this fall.

The Busey-Evans Residence Halls, built in the early 20th century to house the UI’s growing number of female students, were the first dorms built on campus and have been reserved for women for most of their history.

But ongoing reconstruction of the Illinois Street Residence Halls closed one of the two towers there over the summer, and the campus had to find a new place for 627 students — most of them male.

So Evans Hall is being converted to all-male for the next two years, said University Housing spokeswoman Chelsea Hamilton.

“It’s so clean,” said one of the new residents, freshman Justin Davis, 18, who moved in this week. “I spilled some tea, and I think it was the first stain.”

The ISR project started in 2018 with a major renovation of the dining hall, expanding it by 36,000 square feet to serve more students and provide larger meeting rooms, group study areas, and recreation and library spaces. It’s set to open in a year and is ahead of schedule and under budget, pushing the cost down to $73.5 million, said University Housing Director Alma Sealine.

The second phase, budgeted for $59.5 million, will revamp all the rooms in ISR’s residential towers, starting with five-story Townsend this school year and the taller Wardall Hall, which remains open for now, the following year.

Townsend is set to reopen in August 2020, and Wardall will be back in service in August 2021, Hamilton said.

Having Evans Hall go all-male helped balance the residence hall population, she said. The system had some flux to accommodate Townsend’s closing.

But with a record incoming freshman class expected, between 7,500 and 7,600 students, the residence halls will likely be full, Hamilton said. As in past years, the overflow will be housed in temporary quarters until the final numbers shake out, she said.

“We’re looking pretty solid,” she said.

Two all-male dorms

The residence halls hold about 10,500 students. About 29 percent of freshmen stay for a second year or more, Hamilton said.

No modifications were necessary at Evans, Hamilton said. It already had community bathrooms, with a wall of showers, toilets and sinks at one end of a floor, so it’s set up to be single-gender, she said. Halls with more coed options tend to have individual bathrooms.

Busey Hall and Barton Hall remain all-female, and there are female-only floors or wings at other residence halls, she said. The only other all-male dorm is Lundgren Hall.

She said female students at Busey-Evans were receptive to the change “for the most part.”

Housing officials met with women there before announcing the change publicly so they could voice any concerns. The main issue they raised was not being able to keep the same room at Evans for their sophomore year, she said.

“We gave them first choice to pick a room at Busey,” she said.

The two buildings are attached with a lobby, front desk and mail room.

History lesson

Busey Hall, 1111 W. Nevada St., U, was built in 1916 to provide suitable living quarters for female students and originally was known as the Women’s Residence Hall. Evans Hall opened 10 years later as West Residence Hall at 1115 W. Nevada, with a connection to Busey, according to a history written for their inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.

The Georgian Revival buildings were designed by James A. White, who was also the campus architect, and Charles A. Platt, who designed 11 other UI buildings.

In 1937, the Georgian Revival buildings were renamed for Mary E. Busey and Laura B. Evans, both longtime UI trustees; Evans was also a strong advocate for women’s housing.

Women weren’t the first occupants of Busey. The hall housed World War I cadets at a ground-training school for the School of Military Aeronautics in 1917. The first women took up residence in 1919.

Davis didn’t know the full history but knew it was an all-girls dorm when his parents went to the UI. His first two choices, Wassaja Hall and Nugent Hall, were full.

“Busey-Evans seems like a nice dorm and relatively close to the Quad. So I took that,” he said.

$59.5 million plan

Meanwhile, ISR students are moving into a construction zone as work continues on the massive dining facility and phase two gets underway.

UI trustees approved a $4 million budget increase for the residence hall phase of the construction project in March, to $59.5 million. The money came from savings in the dining hall work, originally estimated at $77.5 million. It will be used to replace water-damaged windows and exterior wall panels on the residence halls.

ISR residents this year will again use temporary dining facilities set up in the Illini Union until the new facility is finished a year from now. Overall, it’s 59 percent complete, Sealine said.

It has changed the look of the complex, with large windows overlooking Green Street. The old building had windows, but they were shaded, and large trees obscured the view, Sealine said. The new windows not only bring in more natural light but are intended to draw people into activities there, from dining to student programs, she said. The new Green Street entrance will also be more accessible, she said.

Inside, the skylights are in, drywall is going up and painting is underway.

The name game

The old dining area didn’t have enough space, serving more than 2,000 students during lunch with 750 seats, Sealine said. It will have room for 1,385 now, so students aren’t “sitting on top of one another,” she said.

Rather than the usual open buffet style, the dining facility will have nine smaller “micro restaurants,” plus a tea bar and a convenience store.

Each restaurant will have a different theme, from Fusion 48’s Asian cuisine to Rise and Dine, which serves breakfast food all day and is designed to make students feel like they’re “sitting in grandma’s kitchen,” she said.

It’s a new concept for university dining halls, Sealine said, and “the industry is watching this project to see how it goes.”

Students had a hand in the choices, including the names for the restaurants. Students at the Asian-American Cultural Center, for example, suggested broadening the Asian restaurant to encompass all 48 countries of Asia, hence Fusion 48.

And the original name for the pizza/pasta restaurant translated into “food coma,” Sealine said, and “our friends in Languages said that was probably not a good idea. A food coma is seen as a very different thing in Italy.”

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).