This Day in History: Illini Union opens its doors


The Daily Illini Photo File

The Illini Union, originally pictured in an edition of The Daily Illini from Feb. 5, 1941, opened 81 years ago on this day.

By Megan Krok, Staff Writer

Wednesday marks 82 years since the Illini Union opened its doors in 1941. To this day, the Union serves as a common area, study spot and event space for University students.

On Feb. 5, 1941, the Union held an open house for the public to explore the newly constructed building. According to a Daily Illini article from the following day, 13,494 guests attended the open house. Three days later, on Feb. 8, the Union officially opened.

As stated on the Illini Union Renovation and Expansion Feasibility website, The Women’s League, formed in 1897, and the Men’s League, established 1909, joined together in 1931 to write a letter to University President Harry Chase requesting a new student center.

At this time, the “Union” was a single rented floor of the recently demolished Illini Hall, which was known then as the University YMCA. The Union was expanding, so new space was needed.

After the students’ letter, an appeal was approved to build the Union where Gregory Hall now stands. Unfortunately, the Great Depression delayed construction.

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    In 1934, Arthur C. Willard was inducted as the University’s new president. As stated on the Student Affairs Illini Union website, Willard “publicly supported the development of a headquarters for students, faculty and staff” even before his induction.

    In 1934, Arthur C. Willard was inducted as University president. As stated on the Illini Union website, Willard “publicly supported the development of a headquarters for students, faculty and staff” even before his induction.

    With this newfound support, construction plans began in 1939 by architects John Calvin Leavell and Howard Lovewell Cheney. The construction of the Union was managed by the Illini Union Building Advisory committee, which later became the Illini Union Board after construction was completed.

    Construction of the Union cost $1,505,000 — roughly $32,000,000 when adjusted for inflation. Like today’s Union, the original construction included the bowling alley, ballroom and lounges. When the Union opened, there was a soda fountain on the first floor. Now, students flock to the Union Starbucks for a snack in between classes.

    Although the skeleton of the Illini Union building remains the same way it was 82 years ago at its open house, what the Union offers continues to evolve to support students socially and academically.

    “The Illini Union offers a place for everyone to come together to learn, grow, play and meet new friends,” said Becki Salzman, director of the Union, in an email. “It offers people opportunities to have new experiences and learn new things.”

    According to Salzman, students need more study and lounge space at the Union, as every seat is nearly always filled. Salzman also mentioned there is a “large demand” for reflection, prayer and meditation space on campus, so “providing space for health and well-being is a priority.” The Union continues to offer students opportunities and experience to apply their classroom lessons to the real world.

    “I still believe today that I learn more from the students and guests here than anywhere else,” Salzman said. “This building is alive with an energy that no other building on campus can claim, and that makes it incredibly special to the entire community.”


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