DANVILLE – The last few months, Danville resident Julie Gilpatrick would drive through downtown, where workers were building the new Temple Plaza.
She could see them laying a brick wall and pouring a concrete floor, but she could not see what she was most curious about – a much-talked about centerpiece that was being kept hidden behind a plywood screen.
"We were very excited to see it," Gilpatrick said of the unique mural of sculpted bricks that was finally unveiled Friday evening. "It's not at all what I expected, but it's amazing. They did a really good job."
Hundreds of people – including local dignitaries, the artist, architects and contractors that worked on the project and curious residents like Gilpatrick – turned out on the balmy evening for the dedication of the city's new park. The park, on the northwest corner of Vermilion and North streets in the heart of downtown, is the site of the old Temple Building.
At the dedication, several speakers recalled the building's place in Danville's history. When it was constructed in 1900 and 1901, the six-story limestone-faced building was the tallest office building in the city, and its masonry floor and walls made it one of the first fireproof buildings in town.
The structure – built by Judge E.R.E. Kimbrough and Louis Platt, both of whom were Danville mayors at one time – got its name because the local Masonic lodge occupied one floor from 1901 to 1916. Through the years, it was a center of commerce housing Emory Dry Goods, K&S Department Store, Montgomery Ward and Gerry's Fabrics on the first floor, and offices of doctors, dentists, lawyers and other professionals on the upper floors.
Then, on Oct. 11, 1987, the building was damaged by fire. The loss was estimated at $350,000 more than the building's market value, but only a fraction of its replacement cost.
The once regal-looking building sat vacant from then on, despite attempts by private investors to revive it. After years of decay, city officials deemed it and another eyesore – the seven-story Baum Building, one block down the street – a liability and floated a $1.5 million bond issue and demolished both in the summer of 2001.
Some downtown merchants hoped the city would turn the vacant lot into parking. Instead, city officials used some of the remaining money from the bond issue and a grant secured by former State Sen. Judy Myers of Danville, to build a green space that would serve as a beautiful oasis for the downtown.
"We wanted to take a landmark and keep it a landmark," former Mayor Bob Jones said.
At the dedication, people praised the results – the vision of Parks Superintendent Steve Lane, architect Dave Parker of Springfield and mural artist Donna Dobberfuhl of San Antonio, and the hard work of the city's parks department and local businesses such as Leverenz Masonry, Schomburg & Schomburg Construction, Berry's Garden Center, Schultz's Nursery and Bireline Roofing.
"This truly will become another destination ... for Danville, Illinois," Mayor Scott Eisenhauer said of the park, which will be used for the Farmers Market, outdoor concerts and other events.
The park features an exposed concrete aggregate floor with a large brick paver circle in the center, an 18-inch-high brick wall seat, a stage, which will eventually be covered, and landscaping.
The south side of the Meachum Building, which was exposed when the Temple Building was razed, was covered with a brick veneer with arches and columns. And the ornate Temple Arch, the only remnant of the old Temple building, was repaired to serve as a gateway.
The crown jewel, however, is the 30-by-10-foot sculpture, called "Danville, USA," created by Dobberfuhl of Sculptureworks Inc. of Fort Worth, Texas. She worked with a local committee to come up with the design, kept secret until the unveiling.
To the surprise of some, the sculpture, which is done in bas-relief, does not depict familiar buildings or landmarks, but people. "That's what Danville is about – the people who built this place," Dobberfuhl explained.
While observers may recognize former House Speaker Joseph "Uncle Joe" Cannon, humanitarian Laura Lee and astronaut Joe Tanner, she said 95 percent of the faces are regular people – coal miners, business people and school children – she saw in old photos, from which she drew inspiration.
"Hopefully, this will inspire people to pull out old history books and research who these people were," Dobberfuhl said.
You can reach Noelle McGee at (217) 443-8487 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.