Beam Us Up

From hoops to Commencement to the “King,” the U of I’s spaceship-shaped center has hosted half a century of memorable moments.

Elvis is among the big names who have performed at State Farm Center (previously Assembly Hall). (Photo courtesy of State Farm Center)
From hoops to Commencement to the “King,” the U of I’s spaceship-shaped center has hosted half a century of memorable moments.

Hovering on the south side of the University of Illinois campus, State Farm Center may mimic the fleeting specter of a UFO, but it’s oh, so different in so many ways.

The most important being that its multidimensional mission has morphed it from a mere architectural curiosity to fan-friendly haven, granting it impressive staying power—a half century this year.

Previously known as Assembly Hall, the Center has been as much a cultural hub as sports arena, hosting everything from Broadway shows and rock concerts to science fairs, graduations and 4-H events.

Like the Milky Way, the building has embraced a vast multitude of stars: from Springsteen to Kiss, the Rolling Stones to New Kids on the Block. And not just rock icons: operas, ballet troupes, comedians, home shows, country crooners, circuses, stallions, Ice Capades and monster trucks. Not to mention the nova-like quality of Sinatra and Elvis.

The vast array of events makes it difficult to sum up the facility’s significance in a single list or searing moment. That’s as it should be, says Kevin Ullestad, the Center’s director, because the hall, as he likes to say, is “in the business of making memories.”

Still, we can try.

Maybe your peak recollection was of President Clinton coming to town in 1998. More than 12,000 people got free tickets to hear him speak. Eight thousand more watched him over closed-circuit television at what is now the ARC, and hundreds were turned away.

For many, the top show was Elvis Presley, who played in 1976, less than a year before he died. The “King” drew more than 17,000, a standing-room-only audience who paid $12.50 each to cheer and swoon. That attendance record will never be broken, says Ullestad, because performers’ stages have mushroomed, reducing seating capacity.

Perhaps your favorite time was the unforgettable 2004-05 men’s basketball season, when the heart-stopping plays of Deron Williams ’05 and Dee Brown ’05 AHS wowed the crowd over and over.

The brainchild of Max Abramovitz ’29 FAA, HON ’70, State Farm Center was the largest unsupported dome in the world when first constructed in 1963. While Abramovitz’s original vision was of a building smooth as an egg, he was concerned that concrete would mar the effect. One day at a vegetable stand, he came across a gourd. Its ridges triggered the idea for what is now the building’s iconic roof, a concept which not only cast the coliseum’s unique appearance but strengthened it as well.

With 20/20 hindsight, the design appears inspired, even inevitable—how else to build an arena with no blocked sightlines? Yet at the time, many were skeptical. Renowned psychic Jeanne Dixon predicted the building would fail. Many fans said they’d come to the second basketball game at the hall … only after seeing if the roof stayed up after the first one.

No amount of adoration and careful maintenance can keep a building from aging, even one as seemingly timeless as State Farm Center.

Renovation efforts will begin next year, adding conveniences and removing impediments. But the building will still be the same old gal. She will still assemble us—only better.