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The English Building Was Never a Dorm

Campus’s most famous ghost story starts on the wrong foot.

English Building

If Lincoln Hall is the most well-known building in the College of LAS, its next-door neighbor is perhaps the most mysterious—and not just because it’s rumored to be haunted.

Sure, ghost stories are the English Building’s claim to fame in many websites, YouTube videos, and other spooky accounts. Legend has it that long ago a female student died in the 108-year-old building, and she’s been slamming doors and flipping lights ever since. The fact that University of Illinois archivists have never uncovered record of such a death hasn’t put an end to the story.

Almost always mentioned as a prelude to the ghost story, however, is that the English Building was once a dormitory for women, perhaps making the supposed tragedy more believable. For those on record making such a claim, however, it may come as a fright to learn that it never was a dorm.

Unlike doorknob-rattling spirits, the English Building’s history can be traced through blueprints and board minutes. None of the documented history of the University or the building suggests that it was ever a dormitory.

In its earliest days, after it was opened in 1905, it was called the Woman’s Building. After World War II, it was renamed Bevier Hall for about a decade before it was named the English Building in the 1950s. It has housed the Department of English ever since.

“The English Building in its early days housed women’s activities,” says Winton Solberg, professor emeritus of history who has written extensively about the development of the University. “The women in charge of students—not yet called a dean of women—had offices there, and female students had rooms in which to meet friends, rest, and so forth. Moreover, the English Building housed the academic work in domestic science.”

Not that debunking the myth of the dormitory makes the building any less colorful. According to the October 17, 1905, issue of the Illini (not yet the Daily Illini), the building’s dedication ceremony included 400 female students dressed in white marching from the since-razed University Hall to the gymnasium, where President Edmund James said the new building signifies the U of I’s commitment to “co-education; second, that the fathers and mothers of Illinois want the best possible care taken care of their daughters, and third, that physical culture is as necessary for the girls as for the young men.”

Indeed, the new Woman’s Building included a gymnasium and a pool (which figures into at least one theory of the aforementioned student’s death), along with sewing rooms and other amenities to teach women household science.

An October 8, 1975, article in the Daily Illini points out that an expansion in 1912 added the distinctive, towering white pillars facing the Quad, and that the building’s club rooms made it a major social center for meetings and formal events. Blueprints from the 1912 addition reveal that it did have a two-bedroom home management apartment on the third floor, where a handful of female students lived and learned the details of household science, but it hardly met the definition of a dormitory.

Other documents from the English Building’s early days reveal no sign that it was ever considered a dormitory. Women’s housing was a hot topic long before dorms were built, as many families were reluctant to send their daughters to a place where housing was uncertain (many women found residence in private boarding houses). That’s why an extensive history on housing at the U of I on file at the University Archives describes it as a landmark moment when Busey Hall opened as a residence hall for women in 1918—and never mentions the English Building as a dorm.

Does this mean a woman did not die inside the English Building? No, and for that reason it’s likely the rumor of a ghost will continue unabated. If she does exist, however, she might rest easier if the story begins a little differently.

By Dave Evensen
Winter 2014