University of Iliinois Plans Major Facelift for Memorial Stadium

Sat September 24, 2005 - Midwest Edition
Jim Paul

CHAMPAIGN, IL (AP) Memorial Stadium, the home of University of Illinois (UI) football, looks much the same as it did when it was dedicated in 1924 in memory of those who died in World War I.

While the building is structurally sound, the stadium is showing its age, and sports fans’ expectations have changed. So school officials have drawn up plans to update the structure –– without losing its significance as a memorial.

If the plans go forward, changes would include new seating on both ends of the playing field, replacing the existing west balcony with a new five-level structure for indoor and outdoor club seats and luxury suites, a new press box and expanded and renovated stadium concourses, said associate athletic director Warren Hood, who’s coordinating the project.

The project is subject to approval by the Board of Trustees, with a price that could exceed $120 million over the next four years.

Officials plan to start lining up private funding this fall but do not yet have a timetable for groundbreaking.

“This is an important undertaking,” said Chancellor Richard Herman. “It’s another sign of the momentum that is well under way” at the Urbana-Champaign campus.

Renovations also would help keep UI sports competitive with other Big Ten schools, six of which have updated their football stadiums since 2000.

“Football, obviously, being the key revenue source for the entire [athletic] department, you have to invest in that product,” Hood said.

All of the new work would be done within the current stadium footprint, said Tim Cahill, an architect with HNTB Architecture Inc., which has designed several of the projects at other Big Ten schools.

That means the 200 columns that line colonnades on each side of the stadium would remain. The names of UI students and alumni who died in battle during World War I are inscribed on the columns.

“It’s such a beautiful, unique stadium because it’s a war memorial and it’s an historic building,” said Cahill, who received his graduate degree from UI. “I know the buildings there. We’re not going to mess it up. Not on my watch.”

The new construction would be no taller than the current three-level press box that sits atop the west balcony, Cahill said.

A new stadium entrance would front the seating renovations on the south side, complete with a hall-of-fame museum and a UI sports souvenir store.

Rebuilding seating in the north and south end zones would add 5,800 seats, but the stadium would lose approximately 4,000 seats overall because of the construction on the west side, leaving capacity at 65,143.

Few changes are planned on the east side of the stadium, except for a new mezzanine at the front of the balcony and a renovated concourse, according to HNTB’s plan.

The playing field also would be lowered 4 to 6 ft. to improve the view from lower seats, some of which aren’t sold now because they’re obstructed by the teams’ sidelines, Hood said.

The remodeling would be done between football seasons over at least three years, at a cost of $120 million to $150 million, Hood said. There are no plans to seek public funding; money will come from donations, sale of the suites and club seats and perhaps a small surcharge on other tickets.

“The fans may pay a couple dollars additional for some of this since we are touching the experience of all fans that come in,” Hood said. “It would be very small in nature, if anything.”

Approximately 40 luxury suites are planned as well as approximately 1,400 club seats.

The Board of Trustees won’t be asked to approve the renovation until enough money is in place to begin, Hood said.

“We’ll go out in October and start selling,” he said. “Once we actually have signed contracts for the suites and club seats, then we’ll be able to show we have funding in place and can move forward with whatever that first part of the project is.”

The new Great Hall on the west side will be available year-round for meetings, receptions and other events, and there will be new space for the football team’s training room and fitness center. The remodeling also includes more seating for people who use wheelchairs, improved and expanded restrooms and more concession stands.

“The key to the stadium design is it can’t just be about suite and club patrons,” Cahill said. “It needs to be about every fan. Every fan’s experience will be better than it is now.”