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Lost in Illiniville

Planning the U of I's main campus

Illinois Times

May 4, 2017

Here is a revised version of a review essay that appeared in Illinois Times under the same title, a piece whose published version did not meet even my middling standards.


Reviewed: An Illini Place: Building the University of Illinois Campus by Lex Tate and John Franch; foreword by Stanley O. Ikenberry. University of Illinois Press, 2017


I expect that the main campus in Urbana and Champaign of the University of Illinois is the Downstate town that many Springfieldians know best after their own—in some parts the prettiest and in some ways (people walking!) the most interesting. The place probably ought to be called a city, since it has a daytime population of nearly 54,000 students, faculty, and staff and boasts its own police department, its own health care system, its own transit system, and its own planning department. 

How that town was planned and built is the topic of a new book, An Illini Place: Building the University of Illinois Campus by Lex Tate and John Franch (University of Illinois Press, 2017). Today’s campus is arguably the largest public work in Illinois—320 major buildings spread over 4,550 acres. The university has had more than 90 development plans of one sort or another in the past 150 years. But the book’s story is less about making plans or implementing plans than it is about abandoning plans as a result of budget shortfalls, interference from top administrators and, of late, the whims of donors. Good plans were ignored for the usual bad reasons (such as the shoehorning of the Foreign Languages Building into a corner of the Main Quad in 1971), but visitors who love the place will be relieved to learn that bad plans often were ignored too.

It is Boston architect and U of I grad Clarence Blackall who came up with the first formal plan, in 1905. The heart of the Blackall campus is what is now known as the Main Quad, anchored by the Illini Union on one end and the Auditorium on the other. Compact and coherent, this is what most people think a college campus ought to look like—not because of the specific style of the buildings that line it but their scale and materials and the relation of each building to its neighbors and to the streets.

Leaving the Main Quad and strolling through the newer parts of the campus causes the thoughtful visitor to wonder how it is that universities, full of smart people who have freedom and means that real town planners can only dream of, so often make the same mistakes made by our real towns. Like real towns, this campus in recent decades has been organized according to a strict hierarchy of exclusive use zones—classrooms at the core, then labs and libraries, and, on the periphery, multi-unit housing and, on the suburban fringe, land-hungry facilities like ball fields.

Among other effects, this zoning leaves students living in housing remote from classrooms. In the 1960s, my roommate, an underclassman engineering major, had to walk one mile to get to Engineering Hall on Green Street from our quarters in the men’s residence halls at Peabody and Euclid. The campus has exploded in area since then and now covers seven miles north to south. The resulting sprawl makes its residents dependent on wheeled vehicles, just , as it does those of real towns,. Traditionally, this meant bicycles and campus shuttle buses. But there's the shopping to do, and crappy public transit links to Chicago (and higher speed limits on the interstates) mean that many students (more affluent than they used to be) prefer to have a car with them. Our authors concede that decades of trying has not solved the problem of traffic congestion and parking thus created.

Sprawl also has unhappy aesthetic effects. In an attempt to organize this space visually if not functionally, Blackall’s quadrangle scheme has been enlarged. The campus now has four quads—in order from north to south they are the Beckman, the Bardeen, the Main and the South, which form the campus’s north-south axis. Similar in conception, the quads are different in execution. The Main Quad—the one that the Union faces—is 190 feet wide. The proportion of the heights of the buildings surrounding it to the width of the space separating them gives one a sense of enclosure without crowding, making it a comfortable space to be in as well as to look at.

In contrast, the South Quad that lies on the other side of the Auditorium is 420 feet wide. Its buildings are no taller than those on the Main Quad but are spaced much farther apart, so they don’t define that expanse, they merely border it. The South Quad thus appears like a quad only on a drawing board; from the sidewalk, that part of campus is just a bunch of buildings scattered on a field. The more intimate Beckman and Bardeen quads north of Green are much more successful in spite of some eccentric siting. No unifying east-west axis for the campus as a whole has ever evolved, however, and the southern and western fringes of the campuses give new meaning to the phrase campus disorder.

This account of how things got that way is neither a proper history or a catalog of structures or a collection of essays on pertinent issues. Circumspect as you would expect a university-sponsored publication to be, it raises many more questions than it answers. (Clarence Blackall was shut out of planning decisions in the 1920s —why?) Two chapters—one profiling the town adjacent to campus, which is outside the university’s control, the other a valentine to past (and would-be) donors—belong in a different book; so do the photos of football players and Allerton Park and campuses in Chicago and Galesburg. But maybe it’s inevitable that a history of this campus should sprawl a bit too.  ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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