Halfway House

Observant pedestrians on Mathews Street may have noticed an absence on campus since early summer. Halfway House, the little waiting station that has been a campus landmark since at least 1884, has been temporarily relocated because of construction at the Natural History Building.

Halfway House illustration used in the Daily Illini in the 1960s.

Halfway House illustration used in the Daily Illini in the 1960s.

Originally, the landmark stood where the street car track turned into Wright Street, but there is little information about the structure during its early years. One of the earliest substantive references to the Halfway House on campus was an 1894 observation by the Daily Illini. “Although the street car company [Urbana and Champaign Electric Street Railway] has reaped abundant harvests from the pocket-books of the students and professors of the University, it has not deemed it necessary in the least to arrange for their comfort, having provided no protection from storms for persons waiting for the cars at the University stopping place.”[1] In response, Trustees voted to reconstruct the Halfway House at the north entrance of the main grounds (now the front of the Illini Union). The railroad stopped service in 1908, but the shelter remained.

Halfway House sat in front of the Illini Union as a waiting station until 1961 and was the site of countless meetings, polls, student elections, and other student events. The structure was so central to campus life in the early twentieth century, in May of 1912 the Orpheum Theater hosted The Halfway House, an entertaining vaudeville sketch that focused on a man, woman, and their experiences at the Halfway House.

The structure was dismantled with little fanfare in 1961 for widening Green Street. In 1963, writers of the Daily Illini noted its absence from campus and a search began. The roof and columns were eventually found stacked against a chicken shed near Mount Hope Cemetery. Over the next several months, the Daily Illini became a megaphone for the controversy surrounding the Halfway House salvation and restoration. Meanwhile, the structure remained in pieces, “weathering rain and storm, while the winds of controversy whirled around it.”[2] Letters of support came as far away as California, and the Campus Planning Committee began the process of finding a new location and funding for renovation.

Halfway House, March 31, 1967

Halfway House, March 31, 1967

Roger Ebert, then a Daily Illini editor, wrote a number of articles and editorials chronicling the issues surrounding the historical structure. The architecture itself was not particularly elegant, just a roof held up by three iron columns at each corner, resting on stone plates, and supported by brick piers. Thus the mother of a Daily Illini writer may be excused for her comment upon viewing the Halfway House for the first time: “So that’s the damn thing Roger Ebert’s been shouting about all afternoon.”[3]

After months of negotiation and planning, the shelter was relocated to its present location on Mathews Avenue between Noyes Laboratory and the Natural History Building in April, 1964. Renovations and improvements to the structure were finally completed in May.[4]

The historic Halfway House has been dismantled and moved to the west of the construction site where it will remain for the next 26 months until the complete renovation of the Natural History Building. According to Campus Historic Preservation Officer Melvyn Skvarla, during this time a structural engineering firm will survey the Halfway House, which currently contains a large colony of termites, to determine how best to re-construct the structure.

 

[1] “A Good Move,” Daily Illini, January 24, 1894.

[2] Rodger Ebert, “Ars Grata…Halfway House,” Daily Illini, October 16, 1963.

[3] Tony Burba, “The Dim View…Jetsam,” Daily Illini, May 8, 1964.

[4] Illinois Alumni News, April, 1964.

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