State Farm Center, formerly Assembly Hall, is an engineering marvel and a relic of 1960s architecture that has become a symbol on the campus on the University of Illinois. Future renovations will alter the interior of the facility that will include a renovation of the seating bowl, four levels of premium seating, improved restrooms, concessions, team store and other amenities. Although the interior will alter in appearance, its exterior should remain unchanged upon completion in 2016.
The 16,618-seat arena debuted on March 4, 1963 and was the first ever concrete dome sporting facility. Its roof is similar to the erstwhile Seattle Kingdome and features a 400 foot diameter looming 125 feet above center court. The 5,000 ton concrete dome is still impressive as when John F. Kennedy was in office. Designed by Illinois alumnus Max Abramovitz, it is the second largest arena in the state. As for comfort and convenience to fans half a century later, the old lady is still keeping pace with the rest of the Big 10 arenas across the region.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Would you believe that there is an array of wonderful choices at the arena? Yes, this is true and when you walk around you will discovere a nice diverse choice of cuisine. There are your standard hot dogs, hamburgers, nachos and pretzels; however, there are stuffed pretzels, pulled chicken, macaroni and cheese, jalapeno cheese dogs and Kansas City style pulled pork. Local favorites include Italian beef sandwiches and Polish sausages. The prices are as low as $4 for pretzels and nachos to $8 for pulled chicken. Either way, you can feed yourself quite well here on campus and will go home satisfied. If not, there are plenty of great places to eat before or after the game.
You will be hard pressed to find anyone not donning orange and it is the color of choice by the legions of fans filling the seats. The concrete dome that is not supported by beams or pillars creates a magnificent wide and open feel at the game. The dome also makes a great canvas to project laser lights and Fighting Illini logs during the contest. The Illini cheerleaders and dance squad make sure they do their best to keep fans into the game as they wave giant flags and sprint the narrow concourse between the two seating levels.
Another impressive feature is the circle of banners and honorable jersey numbers that hang from the center of the roof. Final Four and Big 10 Championship banners along with a bevy of former Illini players (both male and female) are featured in prominence. These are not retired numbers, but an impressive list of elite athletes who donned the orange and navy at the university. The design of the roof creates this look and perhaps creates a opening statement for the facility itself.
There are two concourse levels at the arena. The bottom level is a giant narrow loop that houses the small concession stands. Upstairs you will find a large area with giant glass windows that houses a few concessions and more food stands. On both levels the seating area is separated by doorways that remain closed throughout the contest. The numbers above the doors feature number fonts that look unchanged since 1963. The concourse levels are intimate and look into the past of building construction. The facility was not constructed to look like an old gymnasium of the past, but a building of the present and perhaps a vision of the future.
There are great choices to dine on the campus before or after the game. Afterall, this is a major university town and whether you are in Urbana or Champaign, you will find an eclectic and diverse range of cheap foods, casual and fancy restaurants. There are drinking spots that are popular among the college crowd. Depending on your age, you may want to stick to the more cosmopolitan places for your culinary delights.
Papa Del's (206 Green St.) can get busy, but definitely worth the wait. Chicago style deep dish pizza or even its lesser known cousins thin and stuffed pizzas are served to perfection. If you are there during the lunch hours, pick a slice or two (if you dare), of their deep dish for under $3 apiece.
The Black Dog Smoke and Ale House (201 N. Broadway Ave.) is regarded as the best place for barbecue in central Illinois and when you combine smoked catfish and peach barbecue sauce, it's a place you cannot miss.
Seven Saints features 14 signature sliders and beer specials.
The fans bleed orange and blue. The arena is packed with patrons wearing orange and whether you are young or old, you are an Illini fan. They will break into cheers that include "Hail to the Orange" and "Oskee-Wow-Wow" during the course of the basketball game. If you find yourself attending a game and do not have allegiance to either team playing, grab yourself an orange shirt and you will blend in nicely.
There is plenty of parking in the ample color coded lots surrounding the stadium. The arena sits a little over 3 miles from I-74, but once again, use your GPS and you will arrive without getting lost. However, the traffic can get congested on game nights, so give yourself a little extra time when leaving the house. The same applies to leaving the parking lot, give yourself a little patience. The narrow concourses can make it slow going just getting out of the arena as well.
The State Farm Center is worth the look all by itself, but seeing a basketball is a must and perhaps a hidden secret across the state line in Indiana. Tickets for Big 10 rivals range between $42-$47, which might be a fair price to witness college basketball in what should be considered a historic venue. Non-conference games will run a tad cheaper. If you think $40 is too much a for a basketball game, don't worry, the venue, scenery and level of basketball is worth its return on investment.
The design, construction and feel of the place takes a visitor back in time to the early 1960's. The fact that it has not been altered since its construction is a delight to stadium enthusiasts and alumni who never have to imagine what the place used to look like when they attend classes in Champaign-Urbana. A fan base that is decked out in orange, fight songs, and fantastic views of the court makes a visit to the State Farm Center a great way to spend an evening watching basketball.
I do want to say at the outset that this trip was a lot of fun, and the low score should only be indicative on my experience inside the arena. My friend Chris was my tour guide for the town combo that is Champaign-Urbana, and it really was a nice little town and lovely campus. That being said, Stadium Journey is about the stadiums, so let's begin there.
The walk was less than ideal from downtown Champaign, but certainly not unreasonable. Assembly Hall is next to Memorial Stadium, and neither would be described as picturesque, but at least the football stadium looks like it has a bit of history (translation: looks old). Assembly Hall was probably seen as futuristic when it was built in 1963, with its silver dome-like structure. It has one major drawback besides its unappealing look. You see, in the winter, we tend to have snow in Illinois. And you know what? The snow on that silver backdrop can create some sliding ice when the sun comes out. Well, it just so happens that we got some sun on the day that I visited. That meant they closed all, but one entrance- more on this later.
The most noteworthy part of Assembly Hall is its exterior - it looks like a flying saucer. The fans are as good as the team is - solid and engaged when we're winning, blase when we're not. No reason to go unless you love the Illini.
2510 Village Green Pl
Champaign, IL 61822
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Urbana, IL 61801
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