By Dave Wischnowsky-
(CBS) The Assembly Hall means a lot to me.
As a kid, it’s where my dad and I watched the Harlem Globetrotters dribble circles around the Washington Generals. And as a youth, it’s where my mom and I saw the cast of Les Misérables bring down the house.
As a teen, it’s where I cheered on my high school’s basketball team during remarkable back-to-back runs to the Elite Eight. And as a college student, it’s where I donned a cap and gown for my commencement from the University of Illinois.
Throughout my entire life, Assembly Hall has also been the site of countless Illini basketball memories shared with both friends and family. So, while I’m thrilled to see the 50-year-old arena is getting a much-needed injection of cash that should preserve it for another 50, I’m also melancholy about seeing its longtime name relegated to the history books.
“It now has a name rather than a description,” University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise said on Monday during the announcement that as part of $60 million, 30-year naming rights deal the venerable Assembly Hall will now be known as the State Farm Center – starting immediately.
“The intent is to build a place like no other,” Wise continued, “where the community can assemble and, at the same time, preserve the architectural and academic heritage while renewing and rejuvenating it for future generations. It is our academic center, our athletic center, our cultural center, our community center and now it’s the State Farm Center.”
I am pleased that it’s a local corporation that has nabbed the arena’s naming rights. But I’m not going to apologize for still feeling blue about such a monumental change to Champaign’s orange-hued identity – even if the name “Assembly Hall” wasn’t a popular one in the first place.
Last December, Champaign News-Gazette columnist Tom Kacich shared an excerpt from a Daily lllini editorial in late 1962 in which the paper’s student staff strongly pushed for Assembly Hall to be named after legendary Illinois football coach Robert Zuppke.
“The Daily Illini strongly urges that the new assembly hall be dedicated as ‘Zuppke Hall,’ ” the DI wrote in a front-page article. “We believe that the beautiful and unique new assembly hall deserves better than an everyday, factual name. We believe it deserves a name that will link it immediately in the minds of thousands of Illini with a beloved Illinois legend.
According to Kacich, the editorial went on to say that the Assembly Hall’s designers and builders “cannot be blamed for” its name. “Like Topsy, it just grew – from an architect’s sketch into newspaper stories and finally into popular usage. Now is the time to abandon the old title, however.”
In February 1963, a student referendum was held about four weeks before the Assembly Hall opened, offering a choice of 14 potential names for the arena. Zuppke was the winner with 2,999 votes to 2,837 for the runner-up choice, Illini Hall. Poet Carl Sandburg actually finished third with 1,930 votes – the 85-year-old Illinois native was the main speaker at the hall’s formal dedication on May 3, 1963 – while Illini football legend Red Grange came in fourth with 1,645.
According to Kacich, other choices on the student ballot included an eclectic array of names, including the building’s architect and Illinois grad Max Abramowitz; Nobel Prize-winning physicist John Bardeen, then on the Illinois faculty; Avery Brundage, an Illinois graduate and head of the International Olympic Committee; Ernest Hemingway; former UI President Edmund James; retired Illinois administrator and economist Lloyd Morey; historian Alan Nevins; New York Times writer and Illinois grad James “Scotty” Reston; Illinois physics Professor Frederick Seitz; former Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson; and Stephen Douglas, the Illinois senator from 100 years earlier.
“Notably, no one suggested naming the building for Abraham Lincoln,” Kacich wrote, “perhaps because Lincoln Hall [on U. of I.’s Quad] had been dedicated 50 years earlier.”
Fifty years since then, it’s not that the words “Assembly Hall” are so lyrical – as Wise aptly, albeit coldly, pointed out, it is more of a description than a name – but they have grown to carry romance among many an Illinois grad and native. Just like Assembly Hall at Indiana University – which actually is eight years younger than Illinois’ Hall – carries meaning, if not color, among Hoosiers fans.
My preference would have been for the arena’s new name to be the State Farm Assembly Hall. But for $60 million, I understand why the insurance giant didn’t want that. People would have just immediately dropped “State Farm” from the name and still called it “Assembly Hall.”
Although, will they still do that anyway?
Growing up, I always believed that besides the Sears Tower, Assembly Hall’s spaceship-shaped silhouette is the most recognizable of any building in Illinois. And now, just like how the Sears Tower has become the Willis Tower, the Assembly Hall has a new name as well.
In Chicago, however, at least as many people still refer to the skyscraper as “Sears” as those who call it “Willis.” And down in Champaign, I can’t help but wonder whether “The Hall” really is dead.
Or will it still be long live “The Hall”?
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.