It’s been almost a year since workers lifted the cornerstone of Illini Hall. It was a momentous event, occurring during the building’s demolition that marked the opening phase of the Altgeld and Illini Hall Project. A crowd of onlookers and news media were on hand to witness the occasion—there were rumors of a time capsule.
They didn’t really know what to expect, however, when workers finally opened the tiny space that had been sealed for more than 115 years. Jim Hinterlong (BS, ’92, psychology), executive director for the University YMCA, knew about the possibility of a time capsule from historical photos and documents, but there was still uncertainty about what they’d find. Illini Hall was constructed in 1907 as the University YMCA headquarters.
“We had hoped that there was a time capsule there, but we really didn’t know for sure until they lifted the cornerstone back,” he said. Sure enough, Hinterlong reached inside the hole and found a small, water-stained box. That was on Valentine’s Day 2023, and in September the YMCA hosted an event to open the capsule during its 150th anniversary. It was the first time the box had been opened since 1907.
While the contents had been damaged by water, there remained distinguishable papers inside: the University YMCA’s annual report for June 1907, the University YMCA's constitution from 1904, a copy of the Champaign Daily Gazette newspaper for June 10, 1907, a copy of The Illini newspaper (now the Daily Illini) from June 11, 1907, and the University of Illinois Bulletin from April 15, 1907. The box had been placed in the cornerstone on June 9, 1907, during what was then called Alumni Day (this was before the event called Homecoming was created).
See a video of the opening here.
The papers from the time capsule were brought to the University Library, where Jennifer Hain Teper, Velde Professor and head of preservation services, and Shelby Strommer, collections care coordinator, worked to preserve them. They separated and lightly cleaned the documents, working in a biosafety cabinet to protect themselves from mold. Damage from water and air getting into the box over time caused some of the papers to deteriorate and grow mold. The time capsule was not watertight or airtight.
“This is some of the most deteriorated paper that I’ve ever seen in my 25-year career in book and paper conservation,” said Teper. “That air got intermittently moist and hot and cold and dry and did that every year over and over again.” The combination of water vapor and air came in through the top of the box, affecting the stack of paper, particularly on top.
The bottom papers were in better condition. The copy of The Illini found in the box is a rare find; it has never been digitized, according to Strommer, and it’s unclear if there is another physical copy that exists. The issue is from Tuesday, June 11, 1907. Several events are highlighted by the old headlines, such as the senior ball at the Armory.
“The Armory was a bower of evergreens, smilax, and snow-balls, the whole being softly illuminated by shaded lights,” read the story.
The newspaper also mentioned a graduation ceremony where the bishop gave an address, a eulogy, and a headline mentioning Alumni Day events, including the Illini Hall cornerstone ceremony.
The Champaign Daily Gazette paper from June 10, 1907, is also still readable. It also mentioned Alumni Day events, a lawn festival, new street construction ("Property owners on Park Street are anxious to have the street opened in order that they may be able to reach the street car line without walking several blocks," it reads) and the arrest of a man and woman for public intoxication. At the time, Illinois was months away from passing a law prohibiting alcohol ("No one appears to know where the man secured his liquor," the story reads).
The University YMCA constitution from 1904 and their annual report for 1907, found at the top of the box, are fairly deteriorated. The University Bulletin from 1907 was described by Strommer as a brick. While the front page is in good condition, the rest of the pages underneath were previously wet and all stuck together.
This bulletin was digitized online, however. In it, there is a huge table of contents that includes things like the University calendar, lists of faculty, departments, campus history, and even a list of students attending. Many things listed there don’t exist anymore, such as courses in railway science and household science. Other units and buildings have been renamed, such as the Women’s Building, now called the English Building. Edmund James was university president then.
The interior of the box was a glimpse of a different era. Initially home to the University YMCA, Illini Hall served as war barracks during World War I. Later it served as the campus union, and in 1965 it began housing faculty offices for the Department of Mathematics. The Department of Statistics occupied the building in the 1980s.
The building also housed student media outlets such as the Daily Illini newspaper and The Illio yearbook – which are now, ironically, located in the University YMCA, which moved to its current location at Wright and Chalmers streets in 1938.
Next fall, the University YMCA plans to install another time capsule, set to be opened in 2073 during the 200th anniversary of the University YMCA. The cornerstone from the now-demolished Illini Hall was taken to the University YMCA and the new time capsule will be placed under it.