Illini Union hotel still stands 77 years later


Jeannette Yan

Baylin Shade, a sophmore major in community health, has been working at the Illini Union Hotel since last fall. (Jan 17th, 2018)

By Thomas Block, Staff writer

While the Illini Union gallantly occupies the crest of the Main Quad and grazes the ever-industrial Green Street, it’s a little too straightforward to reason that location alone makes the building “the heart of the campus.”

An interactive ground for students and faculty alike, the Illini Union is a blend of the old and the new. With its housing comes a nostalgic familiarity that never fails to pack a pleasant surprise in its whereabouts. Inside, the delicate twangs from an acoustic guitar accompany the soft smell of coffee in the air. It weaves through elegant lounge areas before moving down to the basement, complete with a food court and bowling alley.

Yet although these sights and sounds have become entwined with the Union’s storied presence, even seasoned visitors might find some perks hidden right under their noses.

Alice Lafond has worked in the building for 15 years. As a senior attendant, she supervises the third and fourth floors that form the Illini Union Hotel. The hotel is a bundle of rooms situated above the shops and cafes on the ground level.

Despite the crowds that pour into the Union below her every day, Lafond said she notices a certain puzzlement concerning the hotel.

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“A lot of people don’t even realize there’s a hotel there,” Lafond said. “I had been working there for several years when somebody came up to me and asked, ‘well, what about the ghosts upstairs?’ She thought the place was haunted. I just laughed.”

It’s no surprise that Lafond, once awarded with the Chancellor’s Distinguished Staff Award, is comfortable around the hotel.

Throughout an accounting career of over twenty years, Lafond gradually felt her heart being tugged closer to customer service. She worked at the Illini Union Bookstore, only a stone’s throw away from what was soon to be her next job, when she was asked to interview for a position at the hotel.

She couldn’t say no to the offer.

“It’s such a rich building,” Lafond said. “It’s not one of those places where you go in and things creak all over. It’s inviting as you walk in, and it’s inviting when you walk up.”

The hotel has been extending this invitation for many generations. It was included in the original Illini Union design, which underwent construction in 1939 at the request of the Women’s League, the Men’s Illinois Union and the Student Council for a new student center.

The structure that debuted on Feb. 8, 1941, is different than the building today. Until the early 1960s, the Illini Union subsisted of a rectangular lot along Green Street. This is also known as the northern portion of the signature “I-shape” Union today. The lobby, which remained next to the main entrance on the first floor following the 1963 addition, retains its colonial stature from over 70 years ago.

Still, the hotel belongs to the present just as much as it does to the past.

The Illini Union reported that its hotel served well over 7,000 guests during the 2016-2017 school year. Even though the number of rooms has grown from 23 to 72 over the past seven decades, demand pushes the hotel to the limits of accommodation. It is completely booked for Mom’s Weekend, Dad’s Weekend and Commencement Weekend for 2018.

Rahul Mahesh, freshman in Engineering, competed with a wave of customers last fall as he searched for a place his family to stay while he moved into his dorm. He booked a room four months in advance, but he still might not have made the move early enough.

“Our first option was the Illini Union,” Mahesh said. “We knew we weren’t able to get it for the full four days that we needed.”

While he had to settle for two nights at the Union, Mahesh was content to get his foot in the door at all.

“(The hotel has a) pleasant staff, and overall, the service is good,” he said. “The size of the rooms and the bed and the standards for the hotel are all admirable.”

It’s that kind of first impression that employees such as Lafond hope to pull off in the short time they have with their guests.

Although management often finds themselves in a rush, it’s important to slow down, welcome back alumni paying their alma mater a nostalgic visit and listen to their stories.

As for the stories, Lafond’s heard plenty of them.

She’s picked up word on everything from protests in the ‘60s to streakers in the ‘70s, and in turn, she’s stashed a few stories of her own. In fact, she’s seen quite a few celebrities make their way past the lobby over the years.

“One day, one famous person decided to come in with a disguise,” Lafond said. “He was trying to keep his head down with this ball cap covering his face, making sure everything was as private as could be.”

Fortunately, over the couple of days he stayed, he found himself at home at the hotel.

“We noticed that he relaxed that feeling and understood that he didn’t have to hide within the walls of the Illini Union or be in this disguise,” Lafond said. “He was eventually able to walk through the Union, and if people wanted to talk to him, they could. He finally realized he could be himself.”

It’s the same story with other hotel guests, even for those who haven’t made the University their home yet.

“It gave a spark,” Mahesh said. “I liked staying there, and it made me want to see other buildings on campus.”

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