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University history comes to life through Old Main Project

Once the pride of Illinois State’s campus, the Old Main building was constructed between 1857 and 1861 and razed in 1958. Salvage excavation done in 1981 ahead of the construction of a steam tunnel revealed the foundation walls and an intact basement floor of the University’s first classroom and office building still exist just below today’s flower beds on the Northern end of the Quad.

“I’ve been walking past the flower beds in the Quad for 19 years,” said Professor of Anthropology James Skibo. “Most people just enjoy the flowers, but as an archaeologist I look at the flower beds a little differently, as just a few feet below the surface lies the intact foundation of Old Main, our university’s original building.”

Skibo joined with Associate Professor of Anthropology Gina Hunter as codirectors of the Old Main Project. Initiated in 2009, the project involves researching the building’s proud history through the analysis of excavated remains, oral histories of students and faculty present when the building was still standing, and historical documents and photographs.

Skibo and Hunter are working with the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and the master’s in archeology program. Colleagues in Alumni Relations, Milner Library, the Dr. Jo Ann Rayfield Archives at Illinois State University, and the Illinois State Museum Research and Collections Center are providing assistance.

Visit the Old Main website to learn more.


Old Main was still the center of campus activities when I attended ISNU 1950-54. The dome was removed in 1946 and the top floor closed for safety reasons. Our 8th grade class was given permission to watch the removal from our classroom window. Four Corners was a central meeting site, and a place to keep up with current activities. While a student at U High, I passed through Old Main frequently between the Metcalf building, where most U High classes were held, going to classes in the Industrial Arts Building. It is hard for me to think of Old Main as an archeological site! My memories of it seem fresh.
Patricia Johnson Evelsizer '54