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Assembly Hall changes would add air conditioning, better seating

Craig Chamberlain, News Editor
(217) 333-2894;


Aerial view of the proposed changes to the Assembly Hall
Aerial view of the proposed changes to the Assembly Hall. Recommended outside changes to the facility include an expanded entry lobby on the west side of the building; the addition of four small, two-story "satellite" structures connected at points around the building, as one means of providing additional space for restrooms, concessions and offices.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The Assembly Hall at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign could see more than $60 million in improvements and additions during the next few years if the university follows recommendations in a recently released
study. The next step will be to identify private funding for the project.

The study by Minneapolis-based Ellerbe Becket Architects & Engineers Inc., sponsored jointly by the Assembly Hall and the university’s Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, evaluates the feasibility of modernizing the 39-year-old Assembly Hall in line with standards set by newer multi-use and basketball facilities.

When the facility opened in 1963, it was ahead of its time in many ways, said Gene Barton, associate vice chancellor for student affairs, who oversees the Assembly Hall. "But today, it’s behind its time," he said, especially in many ways related to customer service. In commissioning the study, "We wanted to find out what we could do, and what it would cost," Barton said. "Obviously, it’s not feasible to use students’ fees to pay for such a massive project."

"We’ve got a building that’s got a tremendous history," said Kevin Ullestad, the Assembly Hall’s director. "But we needed to look at how we can provide modern amenities and conveniences and prepare the building for the next 30 years." The changes would improve the hall as a basketball and multi-purpose facility, Ullestad said, and make it more competitive in booking additional events. "It will put us on a level playing field."

Recommended outside changes to the facility include an expanded entry lobby on the west side of the building; the addition of four small, two-story "satellite" structures connected at points around the building, as one means of providing additional space for restrooms, concessions and offices.

In suggesting these additions, the firm took into account the status of the Assembly Hall as a campus icon, as a "unique design statement" at the time of its opening, and in keeping with its listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Barton noted that Max Abramovitz, the architect of the Assembly Hall, was consulted on the design recommendations in the study. "He’s excited about the possibility of how this can work, making an old building much more functional."

"The study presents us with an opportunity not only to keep the historic integrity of the hall but also to make it an exceptional venue for sports and a wide variety of other events," athletics director Ron Guenther said. "The changes the planners envision would result in a facility everyone will be eager to visit."

On the inside, changes would include a lowering of the arena floor by four feet, accompanied by new A Section seating lowered to the same level. One benefit, the study noted, would be that students in A Section would be able to remain standing without blocking the view of patrons in the higher B and C sections. In addition, the new A Section seating on the east side of the arena floor would be retractable, making it possible to bring seating closer to the floor for basketball and yet provide additional floor space for other uses.

Among other significant changes would be new, wider and padded seats; handrails and wider aisles in all sections; and more and better seating at all levels for people in wheelchairs; the addition of elevators and escalators; air conditioning; and courtside "club" space for gatherings and functions, located under the A Section seats on the west side of the arena floor.

The plan also comes with three schemes or options, the second and third of which would introduce suites into the facility’s seating arrangement. The second option would include 26 suites distributed around the middle, or B, section of seats, with some of the lost seating regained by closing up every other entry in C Section and locating new seats there. The third option would also close up every other entry in C Section, placing 10 smaller suites in those locations and leaving the B Section as is.

All three options would mean a loss in overall seating capacity. The first option, without suites, would lower capacity from 16,692 to an estimated 16,159. The second would lower capacity further, to an estimated 15,650, with 312 of those in suites. The third would lower capacity only to an estimated 16,279, with 120 of those in suites.

These options also affect the overall cost of the project, with the first option estimated at $61.9 million, the second at $66.8 million, and the third at $63.4 million.

With the addition of satellite structures and other changes, the Assembly Hall would have seven times as many places to buy concessions and three times the current number of both men’s and women’s toilets, as well as more space for offices and for the flow of people through the building. The existing facility has restrooms only on the lower concourse, and most of the new restrooms would be added on the upper concourse, in the satellite structures.

Other improvements include upgrades to bring the facility in line with Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements and current building codes, extensions and improvements to the sprinkler system, installation of a smoke exhaust system in the seating bowl and concourses, improved lighting for the arena floor, energy-efficient lighting elsewhere, and replacement of mechanical and electrical equipment.

The 3 1/2-month process involved in completing the feasibility study was a collaborative one, involving personnel from the Assembly Hall, the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, the Campus Architect’s Office, and other campus units. Also involved was an architectural class that used the renovation as their semester assignment.

If funding is found and the recommendations go forward, the study proposes a construction schedule that would extend over 28 to 30 months, and that works around basketball seasons. The lowering of the floor and installation of new A Section seating would take place between the first and second basketball seasons that fall within the timetable. Exterior work would go on continuously, with the satellite additions complete by the second basketball season and the entire project complete by the third season.