The Jazz Age | 1920-1930

For the University of Illinois, the 1920s was a decade of physical growth—rising enrollment and rising buildings—and academic stagnation. New York architect Charles Platt gave Illinois a signature Georgian Revival architectural style and a campus plan for the ages. Illinois football reached new heights as Harold “Red” Grange galloped into history. And the students let loose, dating, dancing, and drinking to an unprecedented extent. The hazy outlines of the modern public university—the “Big U” of the 1960s and beyond–could be glimpsed on the distant horizon.

President David Kinley and Lorado Taft in front of Taft's 'Alma Mater' during the sculpture's dedication.Aerial view, towards the north, of the south campus area of campus and the main quad, including the Library (Altgeld Hall), University Hall, the Law Building (Harker Hall), the Natural Resources Building, the Administration Building, the Chemistry Building, the Women's Building (English), the Agricultural Building (Davenport Hall), Lincoln Hall, the Auditorium, Smith Memorial Hall, and the Observatory to the north, the Animal Pathology Lab, farm residence (Mumford House) and barn complex in the center, and the Stock Pavilion and the Mt. Hope Cemetery to the south.Passengers in orange and blue waiting at a trainstation.Man and woman sitting in a booth smokin gand drinking.


The “Roaring Twenties” posed a particular problem for campus administration as old social norms went out the window. Dean of Men Thomas Arkle Clark disapproved of jazz, new dance styles, drink, and student “love-making” (“Intimate physical contact is not necessary to enjoyment between the sexes,” he wrote).

Using an army of informants, he tried unsuccessfully to crack down on drinking and speak-easies (even Eliot Ness once came in 1927 to enforce Prohibition). He also managed to get a campus-wide ban on automobiles, claiming they promoted drinking and “social immorality.” No wonder the campus was considered the most puritanical in the country.

“Intimate physical contact is not necessary to enjoyment between the sexes.”Dean of Men Thomas Arkle Clark


After the huge influx of big-name professors and campus expansion under President James, the priorities of new president David Kinley did not sit well with many on campus. Although an economics professor since 1893 and a dean, faculty considered him abrasive, autocratic, and more concerned with public relations than academic freedom.

The result was few new departments or course offerings, more graduate students as instructors, and an exodus of distinguished faculty. Even reading assignments came under President Kinley’s scrutiny when professors tried to assign questionable books such as James Joyce’s Ulysses. He retired in 1930, after 10 years at the helm.

Campus Architecture & Planning

With enrollment in 1919 burgeoning and buildings bursting at the seams, then-Acting President Kinley identified the university’s chief need as being at least 14 new structures and 12 additions. The Board of Trustees therefore created a Campus Plan Commission to find a way to accommodate at least 10,000 students. Their recommendation: hire New York architect Charles Platt.

Within five years, Platt’s first building, the Agriculture Building, was dedicated. Its Georgian Revival style became the template for all campus buildings of the era (David Kinley Hall, Evans Hall, Huff Hall, McKinley Hospital, University Library, etc.). His greatest innovation—arranging buildings in masses rather than siting them haphazardly.


Campus demographics changed radically during the 1920s, with urban students outnumbering rural ones for the first time ever. International student numbers also decreased as some foreign countries began their own universities and others suffered financial setbacks.

African-American enrollment, however, soared to 138 by 1929. Nevertheless, discrimination permeated everything from housing, causing many to join African-American sororities and fraternities, to classes (President Kinley personally ordered one professor to end segregated classroom seating). Jewish students, too, felt discriminated against, leading to creation of the country’s first Hillel Foundation. They also had common cause with African-American students when the campus Interfraternity Council barred African-American and Jewish fraternities from membership.

Student Activities

The student in the University may or may not agree with the dean’s ideas, or with the University rules. He may think that drinking and other sub-rosa activities are perfectly proper here or anywhere else. He observes the University rules almost altogether for just one reason – he has the fear of the dean in his heart. Daily Illini , May 18 1926

Further Resources

Traditions & Sports

Old traditions like the May Fete and Interscholastic Circus started fading in the 1920s as students preferred to see movies, listen to radio, shop, and attending sporting events. Class gifts continued, however, including sponsorship of Lorado Taft’s Alma Mater statue.

Homecoming also remained wildly popular, especially due to football coach Robert Zuppke’s three Big Ten Titles and presence of star player Red Grange. It was Grange’s phenomenal performance in October 1924, in fact, that put college football on the national map. He was not the only sports phenomenon, however. Student Harold Osborn won gold medals in decathalon and high jump at the 1924 Paris Olympics, shattering world records.