The post-war enrollment boom brought new student demands for more, better and bigger facilities: more residence halls, expanded library space, bigger classroom buildings – and more than anything else, a place for students to gather.
Two decades earlier, an enterprising young man named Jim Lundberg had planned and built on the river bank across the bridge a “handy and pleasant eating establishment” known as Jimmie’s Tea Room. From the time it opened in 1940, Jimmie’s was the place to be for a hamburger, Coke, and conversation. At the end of the war, the university purchased the building, renamed it the College Tea Room, and enlarged it into a student union where dancing and other activities were possible.
Yet the huge influx of new post-war students quickly made it clear that NIU had outgrown the Tea Room. President Holmes empaneled a university center committee whose members began planning a facility that could accommodate an enrollment of at least 10,000.
The center was to be a “center for the community life of the college,” “a hearthstone,” and a unifying force that would hold the university together as it grew larger. A University Center Board was created to administer the many programs aimed at satisfying cultural, social and aesthetic needs of the university community.
When the University Center opened in 1962, the local paper reported on “the swank Pheasant Room,” “plush faculty lounge,” and the president’s “penthouse suite.”
The Center was a hit with students, who now had a place to relax in lounges, have fun in bowling alleys, meet friends in the cafeteria, hear speakers in the auditorium and see performers in the ballroom.
So popular was the facility that its size was doubled within a few years, and a 15-story tower added, creating the campus’s most noticeable landmark. On May 21, 1968, the addition — with the showcase Carl Sandburg Auditorium — was dedicated as part of President Rhoten Smith’s week-long inauguration celebration. Speakers included Sandburg’s granddaughter and Chicago legend Studs Terkel.
Students lobbied for additional services at the Center, and eventually the Board voted to permit the inclusion of a university-owned bookstore, and in later years allowed private partners such as fast food franchises.
In 1974, the Board voted to name NIU’s most popular gathering place in honor of Leslie A. Holmes, the president whose persistence had made it a reality. But other than the new name, not much changed at the Holmes Student Center for more than half a century.
Finally in 2018, a long-awaited renovation began that completely reimagined the entire first floor, adding two new restaurants, a Starbucks coffee shop, a new bookstore and offices for key student organizations. Thousands of square feet of new space is devoted to places where students can lounge, study and collaborate.
During warmer weather, the patio area outside of the newly created ground-level entrance extends the lounge space outdoors. That entryway also reflects changes aimed at making the entire ground floor accessible to people with disabilities, as do two new elevators and ramps throughout.
As the HSC approaches its 60th birthday, it has been given new life as a modern hearthstone for a new generation.
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