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Chicago Undergraduate Division: 1946-1965, part 1

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Overhead view of Navy Pier. UIC photo.

 

 
   
   
Students exiting Navy Pier under the U of I sign.

In response to the student demand created by the G.I. Bill, University officials recommended creating a temporary branch campus of the U of I at Chicago's Navy Pier. Board of Trustees President Park Livingston explained the recommendation, saying the location was “probably the most favorable one available to students from all parts of Chicago.” The city agreed to lease space for a commuter campus on the first and second decks on the north side of the Pier. But unlike the Naval Training School hosted on the Pier during World War II, the University had to share space with other tenants, including the Chicago Police Department’s Traffic Division, the North Pier Terminal Company, and several military detachments. This left about 247,000 square feet of floor space for the “campus," or about 93 square feet per student (compared to the 240 square feet per student available on the Urbana campus).

 
 

 

Students nonetheless were clamoring to get in. At the time, Chicago was one of only three major cities in the United States that did not have a comprehensive public university (Philadelphia and St. Louis were the other two). Money from the G.I. Bill, which paid for tuition, books, and provided a small living allowance, went much further attending a public institution and living at home than it did at one of the city's private institutions. In July 1946, the University appointed Charles C. Caveny, the soft-spoken former Executive Officer of the Navy Pier Naval Training School, Executive Dean for the new campus. On the day he arrived on the job, he found more than three thousand pieces of mail and five hundred potential students waiting, seeking information about how to enroll.

On October 21, 1946, the new branch campus opened to about 4,000 students. Officially called the University of Illinois, Chicago Undergraduate Division (CUD), students described the campus as the “narrowest university in the world,” a “sideways skyscraper,” the “horizontal cathedral of learning,” and “Harvard on the Rocks.” Most of the students were young men, including many veterans anxious to make up for time lost during the war, and they generally did not begrudge the ivy-covered buildings or fraternities of other colleges. One student expected that "the lack of social stimuli would offer more time to study.” Another said taking classes on the Pier would offer “an opportunity to prepare for life.” Still, it was a most improbable site for a college. As Andrew Schiller, an instructor at CUD wrote:

Here was a university guarded by a fireboat and patrolled by the Coast Guard, a man-made peninsula, a functioning pier, warehouse, and freight terminal, crusted with lichens and barnacles on the outside, riddled with termites and rats within. Visualize an enormous wind tunnel. A central corridor split it from end to end, and as you hiked its length (“the ten minute mile”) you passed on either side lecture halls and classrooms, laboratories and lavatories, offices and snack bars, all partitioned off buckling slabs of Beaver board. . . . When classes changed, the corridor was as jammed as a downtown subway platform at rush hour. Down below, in the catacombs of the lower deck, the student’s lockers were arranged in rows like the teeth of a giant comb. The lockers themselves were stuffed tight – the students outnumbered them three to one – but what you saw were not coats and books but people. They sat on the concrete floor, backs against one row, feet against the other, zigzagged head to foot. . . .

Veterans registering at Navy Pier, October 1946. Veterans registering at Navy Pier, October 1946. UIC photo.

 

Navy Pier Gymnasium. Registration was held in the large gymnasium just to the southwest of the Pier.

 

 
 
   
 
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