Missing pieces of history

Missing pieces of history

Historic buildings do not rise Phoenix-like from the ashes.

"Champaign-Urbana has lost a lot of its great historic buildings," University of Illinois architecture Professor Paul Kapp said. "Unfortunately, that seems to be true, in fact, all over the Midwest."

Downtowns thrived before the advent of malls in the 1960s and 1970s. For instance, with traffic rerouted to Market Place Mall, and later North Prospect Avenue, downtown Champaign department stores closed and the number of street-level parking lots grew. As a result of disuse — as well as fires and other factors — several once-proud buildings from local downtown areas have come down in the past few decades.

There were almost no new buildings until a recent renaissance that includes a new hotel, and two new large mixed-use buildings at the downtown's center, including M2, the largest building there.

A new boutique hotel on Champaign's Church Street cannot replace the circa-1872 Metropolitan Building, but it at least fills its footprint (and a little more), replacing an ugly hole in the ground that's been there since the 2008 fire that leveled the original building.

Kapp said the new hotel will have a very modern design, but "it's just good they're replacing a tear in the urban fabric."

As winter nears its end, the nine-story Hyatt Place hotel, which developer Hans Grotelueschen calls "an upscale, select-service brand," is starting to poke its nose up from the hole where the Metropolitan once stood.

Fire is the devil's only friend, as the song goes; it has hit downtown Champaign hard. Before the Metropolitan fire, Main Street sported an ugly, dangerous pile of rubble from an arson where a few buildings stood; it eventually became the location of what is now One Main.

The problem is certainly not limited to Champaign-Urbana, Kapp said. Rossville and Paxton are among the many area towns that also lost swaths of history in large conflagrations in recent decades.

Sometimes buildings just sit alone too long, and become — at least to some — unworthy of rehabilitation. For instance, Monticello has lost its Pepsin Syrup Building, a piece of history that harkened back to when alcohol and cocaine were sold in patent medicines.

Lisa DiChiera, director of advocacy at Landmarks Illinois, said the organization had a setback when it failed to convince Monticello officials that the historic patent medicine factory, built in the 1880s, could be saved.

"The Pepsin syrup factory was a loss for us," she said. "In 2004, the city pushed for its demolition. Part of our job is trying to help public officials see alternatives to demolition."

DiChiera said the most recent Top 10 endangered buildings list includes the tallest building in Danville: Bresee Tower, 2-4 N. Vermilion St.

The 12-story tower was build in 1917 and has been vacant since 2006, when chunks of stone started to fall off. Its owners say they are willing to donate it to a not-for-profit group.

DiChiera said the building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, so federal rehabilitation tax credits could be used for redevelopment. Her group is also lobbying for state-level tax credits.

"Downtown Danville has already lost so much in terms of history," she said. "With (Bresee's) height and age, this type of building could be rehabilitated. It could be a spin-off for downtown business."

Rehabbing is labor-intensive, she said, as opposed to new construction, in which the main cost is materials.

"(Developers) could pay local people to rehabilitate it, or they could replace it with a building made from materials from China," DiChiera said.

Life among the ruins

The liability and safety problems associated with old and vacant buildings has led to a tradition of demolition that includes the Levi Wood House in Middlefork Forest Preserve, and the Jaques House, which was in the way of expansion at the Urbana Free Library.

The 145-year-old Italianate Solon House has survived despite needing $300,000 in repairs; it still stands across the street from the Champaign Public Library.

The area has few buildings by nationally known architects, Max Abramovitz's Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and Assembly Hall being exceptions. (His campustown Hillel Foundation Building recently was replaced by a new structure.)

The late Abramovitz had a hand in many Manhattan buildings, including the United Nations complex and the Lincoln Center.

Not just old buildings

Thus it was a shock to preservationists that a relatively new building designed by Paul Rudolph, the man who laid out the plans for several Yale University buildings and was a leader in the Brutalist School, was going to face the wrecking ball.

On its 20th anniversary in 1986, the Christian Science Building at Fourth and Gregory in Champaign was slated for demolition. There was some outcry that the edifice by Rudolph, who had only recently been named to the Pym Distinguished Professorship at the UI, would not be saved.

There was an outcry, but also a resignation, because the building wasn't energy-efficient and was seeing a decline in use.

It was replaced by a nondescript student apartment building.

Paved paradise

The Preservation and Conservation Association of Champaign County's new director, Thomas Garza, said downtown Urbana probably has a better record of keeping its architectural treasures than downtown Champaign.

Champaign seems more business-friendly and sees utility in parking lots and new construction, while Urbana is more conscious of its heritage, he said.

The older city, nevertheless, has had its share of losses, including the Jaques House, which was to be moved and saved so the library could expand — but collapsed during the attempt.

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vcponsardin wrote on March 10, 2013 at 12:03 pm

It's too bad they decided to construct another building on the Metropolitan Building site.  Yeah, the old historic structure is gone.  But putting up another structure was a hasty decision, I think.  When the Met Bldg burned in 2008 I was hoping the city would see fit to build a large central square instead.  I think it would have added new life to the center of Champaign in a way that a boutique hotel will not.  That intersection has the makings of a great central city square where people could congregrate each evening, eat, drink and enjoy each other in an open and community-oriented environment.  Having traveled quite a bit through Europe over the years, I've come to appreciate how important a central square is to the life of a city.  In Spain, France, Italy, etc., almost every town and city has such a square, surrounded by shops, restaurants, and bars, making for a community vibrancy that we generally don't have in most American towns and cities.  There's nothing quite like sitting in the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, for instance, sipping a sherry, eating tapas and watching the people go by.   And we could have done the very same right here in Champaign had we taken advantage of the opportunity when it arose.  Instead, we'll be closing off this wonderful opening and shutting out a great opportunity to create a distinctive feature to our city--an open-air city square, where all of Champaign could assemble and enjoy.

SaintClarence27 wrote on March 10, 2013 at 1:03 pm

I do like the idea of a central city square as well. Maybe we could still achieve that.

vcponsardin wrote on March 10, 2013 at 1:03 pm

I agree.  But where and how now that this new building is going up?  I suppose the city could do something similar just north of that intersection, by turning that odd triangular parking lot next to Kofusion and the Children's Museum into a square.  Encourage the city to open up the buldings surrounding it to more restaurants and shops, license open-air seating and service--it might work.

Joe American wrote on March 10, 2013 at 7:03 pm

True, arson did destroy the former buildings on the current One Main site, but they were hardly of the historic significance relevant to this article.

aantulov wrote on March 11, 2013 at 4:03 am

The thing about all these older buildings I miss the most is that their owners paid their taxes.  Seriously, if the the new buildings were not given 30 year tax breaks, we would have decent public schools and a champaign Burnham city hospital would be provide profitless care so that profit driven entities could obtain their money the old fashioned way, by earning it.