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Life and Death of the Elephant: the Secret History of the First University Building

Reproduced with permission from the University of Illinois Archives Blog (

When Urbana was chosen as the site of the Illinois Industrial University (now the University of Illinois) in 1867, one of the advantages it had over other potential locations was the Urbana and Champaign Institute, a brand-new, five-story, empty school building that was ready for the University’s immediate use. This building became the University of Illinois in 1867, and was the only campus building until the Mechanical Building and Drill Hall was erected in 1872.

But how did Champaign County happen to have an empty school to donate to the University in the first place? The answer involves God, money, war, and politics.

In January 1859, a Reverend Jonathan C. Stoughton visited Champaign County. Stoughton represented a company of men that hoped to establish a series of schools throughout Illinois, and had come to meet with the leaders of Urbana and West Urbana (now known as Champaign) about founding one here. Their model would be the Clark Seminary they had previously established in Aurora, Illinois. Citizens of the two towns looked favorably on the idea, and by June 1860, $40,000 had been promised for construction of the building (1).

In February 1861, the Illinois state legislature officially incorporated the Urbana and Champaign Institute, a “Seminary of Learning comprehending an agricultural, or other departments, as the public may demand, situated between the cities of Urbana and Champaign, in the county of Champaign, and State of Illinois, for males and females…with power to confer degrees and give diplomas, such as are common in such institutions”(2). A Board of Trustees was established, and the cornerstone of the Institute was laid on August 6, 1861 (3).

However, the American Civil War was on, and many US citizens were in sorry financial shape. Stoughton and company were unable to collect around $5,000 owed to them, and in September 1861 construction of the Institute was suspended indefinitely. Probably no more than the foundation had been completed at the time.4 It may have been at this time that the building gained its derisive nickname “The Elephant.”

The Institute may have remained a large hole in the ground for some time if not for the Morrill Act of 1862, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 2nd. The Act provided funds to each state of the Union to establish an agricultural and mechanical college. Champaign County leaders saw that these funds could be used to complete and operate the Institute, if the Illinois state legislature could be persuaded to locate the new state college in Champaign County. The county offered to buy the Institute building from Stoughton and company, but only if the state officially located the new University in Champaign County. This was agreeable to Stoughton, and construction of the Institute continued. The building was sufficiently complete by October 1864 to greatly impress a group from the Illinois governor’s office (5).

In January 1865, Champaign County officially offered up the Urbana and Champaign Institute, an uncompleted building not yet owned by the county, to the state of Illinois to house the Illinois Industrial University. After the Illinois General Assembly also considered bids from the cities of Jacksonville, Bloomington, and Lincoln, the Illinois Industrial University was officially established at Urbana in February 1867. The initial campus consisted of the Institute building and 980 acres of adjacent farmland (6). The interior of the building was still unfinished; this was actually seen as an advantage by one advisory group, giving flexibility in the initial design of University facilities (7).

As promised, Stoughton and company were paid $24,000 for a school that never hired a professor, held a class, or even finished construction. The Institute was then donated to the University by Champaign County. The Institute building became known as the University Building, or the Old Main University Building. To some, it was still “The Elephant”, although some of the sting of the nickname had apparently faded. It eventually housed enough classrooms for 400 students, and dormitories for 130 (8).

Thirteen years later, after other buildings had been added to the campus, it was simply the Dormitory Building. In April 1880, a particularly nasty series of storms struck Urbana and Champaign. At approximately 1:00 am on April 19, a portion of the building’s west exterior wall fell down, and later that morning a large part of the roof was shorn off by wind (9) The dormitories in the west wing were vacated, and shortly thereafter the entire building was judged “not fit for use” (10). The building was torn down not long after (11).


Old University Building in the distance This image was shot just south of Green Street looking north. The Old University Building is in the center left, and the Mechanical Building is in the center right. Image courtesy the University of Illinois Archives
Old University Building, May 1970 Image courtesy the University of Illinois Archives
Old University Building Image courtesy the University of Illinois Archives
Part of the Grounds of the Illinois Industrial University, ca. 1876 Includes the Old University Building (the Elephant) to the north, the Parade Grounds, the Arboretum, University Hall, and the Experimental Farm to the south with an inset showing the wider expanse of the University. University students A.C. Kennedy (B.S. 1877) and J.W. Rhodes (B.S. 1876) were paid ten dollars by the University for their work on this plan. (see BOT Report, June 7, 1876, p. 188). Image and text courtesy University of Illinois Archives



Rory Grennan, “Life and Death of the Elephant: the Secret History of the First University Building,” ExploreCU, accessed January 27, 2022,