Tower turning 35, but controversy over its construction lingers

Tower turning 35, but controversy over its construction lingers

After nearly 35 years, the tallest building in Champaign-Urbana remains unchallenged.

Now known as the Tower at Third, the 21-story building, which stands 205 feet tall, claimed to be the tallest building in downstate Illinois when it opened April 3, 1972. But the building's real claim to fame is that it is probably the most controversial building ever constructed in the twin cities – the new Champaign County Nursing Home pales in comparison.

After all, this was a high-rise tainted by bribery, arrests, prison sentences, a monthslong zoning controversy, a tense feud between the builder and city staff, and even fraud.

"Maybe this should be more of a story on Wally Rogers rather than the Century 21 Building," says Harold "Skip" LeGrande of Champaign, who was a member of planning commission when the building, located at the corner of Third and John streets in Champaign, was up for rezoning.

"You had all these stories about Wally, and you didn't know what was true. It was a strange deal all the way around."

Rogers was the owner of an Urbana heating and plumbing contractor by the name of Architectural and Mechanical Systems when the project, known as the Century 21, was announced in December 1970. He had big dreams as a developer, with a series of high-rises and other projects built around the state. In fact, in 1972 he built another skyscraper, the 30-story Hilton Hotel (originally the Forum 30) in Springfield.

Even his one-time attorney, Arthur Lerner of Champaign, says Rogers rubbed people the wrong way.

"Wally Rogers did not have a reputation in the community for being the most honest guy," Lerner says.

When Rogers announced the building, it was supposed to house apartments, offices and commercial space. However, there are indications that Rogers had other plans from the very beginning, although he waited until the building was nearly finished to ask for zoning changes to accommodate a hotel, a parking garage, a restaurant with a liquor license and various shops, including a drugstore.

"Where I really got involved – and this was after the building was completely framed up – someone with the city said, 'You can't build that size of building nor can you build a hotel-restaurant.' There were two problems: The building wasn't zoned for a hotel-restaurant and it was within 1,500 feet of the university," Lerner says. "At that point Rogers could not get a liquor license because it was too close to the university."

What followed was months of controversy as the planning commission debated whether to change the zoning of the Century 21 building (so named for its 21 floors) from multiple-family residential to central business.

As the debate neared a vote, a member of the commission, a barber by the name of Tommy Drish approached Rogers and told him he would vote for the rezoning and try to persuade others on the panel to do the same – for $5,000.

"If you knew Wally Rogers, you would have assumed that he would just pay him. Instead, Wally called the (state) police and they recorded the conversation. Tommy was convicted of official misconduct and bribery. His conviction was affirmed by the appellate court, and he got jail time," Lerner says.

A day later, the commission split 3-3 on the rezoning and sent the matter to the city council without a recommendation. Lerner is convinced the city was so embarrassed by the scandal that the council had no choice but to approve the rezoning.

"It is my belief that if the bribe had never happened, that the city would never have rezoned the Century 21," he says. "I'm convinced to this day that the smartest thing Wally ever did was report the bribe to the police. That put all the pressure on the city. On the other hand, here was this 21-story building and city officials had to ask themselves, 'What are we going to do? Let it rot?'"

When the building opened, it was with a temporary occupancy permit. Not until after the rezoning was approved July 19, 1972, on a 5-2 vote by the city council, was it fully occupied.

But even after Lerner was able to get the Century 21 a liquor license when a court ruled that the state's 1,500-foot buffer zone was unconstitutional, the building proved to be a white elephant for Rogers.

The building lost wads of money, and he sold it in May 1974 for $8.7 million to First Mortgage Investors of Miami.

"In no way is this a foreclosure," Rogers said at the time.

Initially, he claimed the Century 21 cost $10 million to build and furnish. After the sale, he said the building had cost between $5 million and $7 million to construct.

Although he was able to shed the Century 21, Rogers had more trouble ahead. He was charged with fraud in 1977 for submitting false information to get loans totaling $8.5 million. The loans were used to build a restaurant and motel at Mattis and Bradley in Champaign, a Ramada Inn in Springfield and an apartment building in Bloomington.

Rogers fled to England but was extradited back to the United States in July 1978. He was found guilty of the charges and sentenced in December 1978 to two years in prison, followed by three years of probation.

Lerner believes Rogers is still alive but no longer lives in the area. (The News-Gazette could not find an address or contact information for him.)

After Rogers sold Century 21, the building continued to lose money. The Hilton Hotel closed in September 1974, along with the restaurant at the top of the building. First Mortgage held onto the building for about 18 months, selling it – for $1.8 million – to the owners of the Ramada Inn in Champaign.

On July 1, 1975, the new owners changed the name to the University Inn, with a hotel by the same name, along with a swanky restaurant called the Top of the Inn. The building remained the University Inn for 25 years until it was sold in 2001 and renamed the Presidential Tower. The building was sold again in August 2005 and rechristened The Tower at Third.

Today, the building is mostly student apartments, with 145 two-bedroom units, two singles and one triple. The building is 100 percent occupied, according to property manager Lesley Chouinard, with almost 300 students, most of whom go to the University of Illinois and call The Tower at Third home.

The building has become such a familiar part of the C-U landscape that longtime residents often take it for granted. However, putting aside the controversy involving Rogers and the construction of the Century 21, it's clear from old newspaper clippings that many residents saw the building as a sign that bigger and better things were on the horizon. With the high-rise, Champaign and Urbana graduated from small towns to real cities.

"When visitors drive into town they can see our building from a distance – it's visible from almost anywhere on the edge of town – and so that's a nice distinction," Chouinard says.

When the building was going up, Charles Lozar, now a Champaign architect, was going to the UI.

"I was a student at the time and also teaching at the School of Architecture," Lozar says. "I recall a lot of excitement when the building was going up: one, because of the height, and two, because it was being constructed with Core-Ten, which came out around the same time."

Core-Ten was developed by U.S. Steel Co. The steel forms a rusty coating, which stabilizes it. The rust coating, though not attractive, does not have to be painted.

"The big thing that building has going for it is location, location, location," Lozar says. "For a long time, it seem that whatever the owners tried didn't work very well. But with student apartments in that location, you pack in that kind of density, you ought to generate some income."

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