IIT Urban Legends

As with any college, IIT has its share of stories, passed down from class to class, from senior to freshman. But at IIT, these legends don’t take the commonplace form of the ghost haunting the women’s dormitory. The pragmatic mind of the IIT student has conjured up a different brand of mythology curiously befitting an institute of technology. The rumors and legends of IIT are far too numerous to cover in a single story, but we’ve picked a few of our favorites to share with you.

IIT Urban Legends

Conspiracy Theories
The tallest building on campus is also the center of some of the tallest tales. If we’re to believe the rumors, Big Brother is a constant presence on the IIT campus, and he’s a very busy man. Conducting government experiments, bringing in mysterious shipments from the lake via an underground road, and unleashing “carnivores” and spy squirrels on innocent students. And where is this work conducted? In the secret basements of IITRI, which supposedly extends as far down as it does up.

I took a tour of IIT Tower with Maintenance Supervisor Tim Hinko, who has worked at first IITRI and now IIT for 25 years. Tim gave me a thorough tour of both the IIT Tower and the buildings that connect to it, though 90% of the time I had no idea where I was. Although there are two levels of basement below the surface, there’s not much beyond that unless you want to explore the sewer pit, and Tim’s words of warning as I approached it (“just watch out for the cockroaches as you get closer”) were enough to quell my desire to explore farther.

I saw little to foster the rumors surrounding IITRI, though there was certainly a time when the suspicions would have been well founded. IITRI was once a hotbed of chemical, biological, and defense research, featuring everything from rocket propulsion systems to ejection seats. Armour Research Foundation first made a name for itself in 1939, when the Snow Cruiser was unveiled. The government certainly took an interest in IIT during the Cold War years, as it fought to maintain dominance over the Soviet Union. The frantic pace of the space race is evidenced in this selection from the 1956 Annual Report of Armour Research Foundation:

The Russians are racing rapidly to the side of the Americans in more and more events and passing them in a few. Just 15 years ago we were sending them Studebaker six-by-sixes and canned sausage with a bay leaf in each can because they could not produce enough machinery and foodstuffs to meet their own needs. At the end of the year they had left us literally on the launching pad, with their moon impact and moon photos.

Apparently, the idea of one day relying on the Russians for our automotive and culinary needs helped urge our engineers and scientists forward. At one time, the cafeteria served approximately 1,400 meals a day—breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Tim Hinko remembers, “Everyone in IITRI, no matter what they did, had security clearances. Even with this clearance, there were rooms that had teletyping equipment, and they had to cover everything over with black tarp before we were allowed in. We had to sign in the exact time we walked into the room, and we had to sign back out when we left. No one was allowed in the room without one of the staff members who had higher security clearance than we did.”

Hinko also recalls seeing an infant cruise missile in the building, which might explain all those rumors about missile silos under the expressway across from the tower. They didn’t exist, but what was beneath the Dan Ryan was a shooting range, connected to the tiny building at 3458 S. Federal by a tunnel that ran under the Metra tracks—which would have made for an interesting lunch-hour getaway.

Among the more innocuous research projects were the canoe tests conducted in the Life Sciences Building, which used to have a swimming pool in the basement. Basically, researchers spent their days dumping as much stuff as they could into the canoes to see how much weight it took to sink them. I want that job.

The Engineering Research Building was home to two spheres of high-pressure air. Jacques Cousteau used to visit Chicago to test his diving equipment in the spheres, since it was the only place where he could obtain precise calibrations. After the Cold War, one of the spheres was shipped off to Comiskey (now called U.S. Cellular; no mystery how that came about) and painted to look like a gigantic baseball. Its sister sphere was brought back to life during the Reagan years, when they sucked all the air out of it and used it as an atmospheric testing resource for Star Wars experiments. Everything old was new again.

What none of my sources could neither confirm nor deny is that IITRI also serves as a safe house for the president of the United States if war happens to break out while he’s visiting the Windy City. (Perhaps that would explain why the top three floors are blacked out—to foil spy satellites?)

IIT Urban Legends
The infamous nuclear reactor. Approach at your own risk.

Sometimes Truth is Stranger Than Fiction
The basement of IITRI is also rumored to be the home of a nuclear reactor that is cooled by the fountain in front of Perlstein Hall. This story actually appears to be close to the truth. IIT was indeed home to the first industrial nuclear reactor, but it was housed in IITRI’s neighbor to the north, 3440 S. State (which is now suspiciously 3424 S. State).

The building was designed specifically to house the reactor, which went “critical” on June 28, 1956. The press release from that day describes the value of peacetime nuclear research: “Short-lived radioisotopes, useful in medical, industrial and scientific research, will be produced. Atomic fission, the ‘splitting’ of atoms which produces radioactivity and neutrons, takes place in the reactor core, a steel sphere one foot in diameter.” The reactor resided there for two decades, until it was officially decommissioned in the mid 1970s, when experts finally decided that the risk of accidentally decimating the City of Chicago was too great.

When the shield wall was being dismantled, the crew separated the lead bricks that comprised it into those above and below an acceptable level of radioactivity. Those glowing with life were disposed of (heaven knows where!), but the others were left lying around, much to the students’ delight, and can still be seen serving as doorstops and decorative office pieces. One brick even lies in state in Machinery Hall in the office of David Schmidt, director of Environmental and Occupational Safety.

IIT Urban Legends
A view from inside the tunnels.

What Lies Beneath
Perhaps the only thing that excites IIT students more than the thought of getting into the IITRI basements is the thought of exploring the tunnels that run under most of the campus west of State Street. Mike Lynch, director of Facilities, led me and my trusty research crew on a thorough tour of the IIT tunnel system. I can sum up the tunnels in three words: confusing, dirty, and smelly. The tunnels now house much of the university’s heating and cooling systems, and after I spent an hour down there, those three words applied to me as well. Originally built as safe, weather-proof conduits connecting the main buildings, through the years they were closed to IIT students and are now the domain of our proud Facilities staff. At one point on our tour, I was completely in the dark (can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face dark). As tantalizing as the tunnels may seem, I would advise against exploring them without a proper chaperone.

Student Pranks Gone Awry
IIT legends are not limited to unexplained mysteries—some involve students with a little too much time on their hands. The Rock is one of the oldest fixtures on the IIT campus. In 1893, the Canadian Copper Company donated it to Armour Institute after its display at the Columbian exposition. “Probation Rock,” as it was once known, originally sat in front of the old Student Union building; when the campus was being redeveloped, the rock was moved to its current home in front of the HUB.

There are conflicting opinions about its weight (somewhere between two and four tons) and about how much gold it contains (the original figure was $800 worth, but it may have appreciated in value to a few thousand). Common legend holds that one night in 1969 a group of fraternity brothers plotted to bury the rock by digging out the ground underneath it, says Schmidt (previously mentioned keeper of the “atomic brick”). He contends that the students were actually trying to remove the rock from the ground, but their inept digging buried it even farther. Whichever story is accurate, it is clear that there is much less rock to paint today than there was before the prank.

A more successful attempt to remove an IIT landmark occurred in 2000, when a group of seniors transferred the famous Man on a Bench sculpture to a warmer and more comfortable spot—President Lew Collens’ desk chair. In recognition of the young men’s ingenuity, President Collens had his photo taken with the silent man before having him returned to his proper seat on the bench to the east of the HUB.

But perhaps the boldest prank took place more than a century ago, not long after the birth of Armour Tech. In 1901, J. Ogden Armour and his mother announced that they were presenting Armour Institute with a gift of $1 million. Pres. Frank J. Gunsaulus determined that the money would be added to the endowment to supplement tuition fees, since it was the intent of the school’s founder to keep tuition low and education within reach of rich and poor students alike (tuition at the time was $75 per year).

As you might expect, this decision was very popular with the students themselves, and on April 15, 1901, a group of about 100 took to the streets to celebrate the grand gift—clad only in their nightshirts. The young men, who by this point had probably crossed over the line of sobriety, walked to the South Side “El” train at 33rd Street and pushed their way into the station without paying. They then boarded a train heading south and, for all intents and purposes, hijacked two of the cars. The other passengers evacuated, and the students ended up taking out all the light bulbs, breaking the windows, and generally making a mess. When they reached Stony Island, they still refused to leave or pay. The train crew turned back and headed north, but when they reached State and Van Buren, the fun was over.

A police squad escorted the boys to the lock up. Armour’s dean Victor C. Alderson came down to bail them out at 3 a.m., but the next morning they had to make their appearance in court. Public opinion was on their side, and the elevated railroad decided not to pursue the case. In James Clinton Peebles’ A History of Armour Institute of Technology, he quotes one of the Chicago newspapers: “There is nothing really harmful in these youngsters. They bathe regularly and wear clean linen…Youth must have its fling and boys will be boys. There is nothing the matter with the Armour Institute boys. Please forgive them.” The “Nightshirt Parade” will undoubtedly go down in IIT history as the ultimate joyride.

The Mysteries Remain
Does your G.P.A. really drop a tenth of a point every time you walk under a passing “El” train? Does Mies van der Rohe breathe down the necks of architecture students in Crown Hall late at night? Just what is that on top of the power plant smokestack?

Although we’ve tried to shed light on a few of IIT’s popular urban legends, we hope you don’t mind that we’ve left some shrouded in mystery. After all, the myths passed down from year to year are the legacies of inspired imaginations and part of the bond that IIT students share. Future graduates are already adding their own stories to this IIT lore, and the next generation will undoubtedly hear tales about the secret treasures discovered during excavation for the new campus center and residence hall. Whether old or new, truth or inspired fiction, these stories will remain a colorful part of IIT’s rich history for many years to come.