The University of Illinois began with one lone building, which looked out on a wide, open landscape on the southeast corner of University and Wright Streets—approximately where the magnificent Beckman Institute proudly stands today.
But this first building was anything but magnificent—or proud.
It was called the University Building or the Dormitory Building, but it was best known by the nickname, the Elephant. This was a ramshackle structure, and the land surrounding the Elephant was equally unimpressive when the university was founded in 1867 as the Illinois Industrial University.
“The one and only building which the university owned stood in the middle of a bleak and unadorned campus made up of muddy lanes and surrounded by pasture,” reports Illini Years, a University of Illinois Press book published in 1950. “The cattle outnumbered the students.”
Burt E. Powell’s Semi-Centennial History of the University of Illinois, Volume 1, published in 1918, was even more unsparing in its description of that first building and its surroundings.
“Both were uncompromisingly ugly, sadly in need of improvement,” Powell writes. “The building was unsuitable in many respects, the campus was a desolation for wandering cattle and pigs.”
He also points out that the Illinois Industrial University’s grounds did not live up to “the glowing accounts given out by local papers” when Champaign County boosters were actively campaigning to land the university within their borders. The Elephant was part of Champaign County’s bid for the university.
Powell goes on to quote a description offered up by an early resident, Judge J.O. Cunningham, who noted that the Elephant was a five-story structure that “stood alone on the bare prairie, unfenced, towering high above anything in either town, and very conspicuous for miles away.”
According to Powell, the university board decided to build a fence around this “white elephant,” providing a clue to why the building became known as the Elephant. After all, a “white elephant gift” refers to a particularly flawed or useless gift. The name stuck.
Although the university was founded in 1867, the doors to the Elephant didn’t actually open until 1868, when 77 students arrived on campus. Like all students over the past century and a half, this group had to bring their own bedding. But they also had to drag along beds, and they even lugged their own stoves. They purchased coal for the stoves from the university at cost.
The price to live in the Elephant was four dollars per semester, but students had to commit themselves to two hours of manual labor every day—“beautifying the Elephant,” says Illini Years. “They built the driveway, began the boardwalk, landscaped the surrounding grounds with trees and shrubs, erected wooden fences to keep livestock off the grounds, and made some of the classroom furniture.”
From this humble beginning of one solitary building, the beautiful University of Illinois campus today stretches 7 miles from north to south, with 320 major buildings and 657 total buildings, not counting farm or off-campus properties, says Lex Tate and John Franch in the recent book, An Illini Place.
Better yet, not a single pig or cow can be found today wandering in front of the Beckman Institute.
Sources: Semi-Centennial History of the University of Illinois, Volume 1, Burt E. Powell, University of Illinois, 1918; Illini Years: A Picture History of the University of Illinois, University of Illinois Press, 1950; An Illini Place: Building the University of Illinois Campus, Lex Tate and John Franch, University of Illinois Press, 2017.