University of Illinois' 'Circle Campus' opens

February 22, 2012

On this day in 1965, Chicago got its first, full-fledged public university. The University of Illinois' Chicago Circle campus was dedicated.

The university had been founded at Urbana in 1867. The first Chicago branch opened in 1946 at Navy Pier--"Harvard on the Rocks," the students called it. But the pier had limited room. All undergrads were forced to complete their last two years at the main campus, 130 miles away.

In 1951 State Senator Richard J. Daley sponsored a bill calling for the university to build a four-year facility in Chicago. The trustees investigated a number of sites. For a while it seemed likely the new school would be located in Garfield Park.

Daley became Mayor of Chicago in 1955. He wanted a more central site. Putting the campus at Harrison and Halsted would stabilize the Loop and renew a blighted area.

Except that the people living there didn't think the neighborhood was blighted. This was the historic heart of the city's Italian community. There were protests, there were lawsuits, there was a bombing. In the end, Daley got his way.

The neighborhood was bulldozed. Among the buildings destroyed was the new Holy Guardian Angels Church, barely four years old. Except for the original mansion, all of the Hull House settlement was torn down. Jessie Binford, an 85-year-old social worker who had lived there since 1905, had to find a new home.

Now the campus was ready. Daley was there, along with Gov. Kerner and various dignitaries. About 5,000 students came out to view the festivities. When the ceremonial ribbon was cut, the students let loose with three cheers.

The architecture of Circle campus was severely modern. Some critics thought the school looked like a prison. Most of the students were just glad to be off the pier. One 19-year-old gave an enthusiastic endorsement--she compared the classrooms to "rocket ships."

Forty-seven years later, the university is still there. The campus has spread out, and some of the controversial architecture has been modified. What remains of the original buildings is passed off as "historic."

The name of the school has changed, too. Today it's called the University of Illinois at Chicago. This was done because very few institutions of higher learning are named after expressway interchanges.

Richard J. Daley died in 1976 after 21-plus years as mayor. He always said that the university was his proudest legacy.