CHAMPAIGN – When Jeff Mellander graduated from the University of Illinois in 1973 with a bachelor's degree in architecture, he visited Southern California with a dream of finding an architect's job there.
It didn't quite work out.
"There was an environmental freeze of some kind out there, construction was restricted in Southern California and architects were laid off," Mellander recalled. "I came out there without any prior experience, and I was at the bottom of the pecking order. I got one job offer for $5 or $7 an hour, and I thought, 'I can't move out there for that.'"
For lack of a better alternative, the Wheaton native came back to Champaign three weeks later and began freelancing as a technical illustrator.
Thirty years later, the 53-year-old Mellander now heads the 42-employee Precision Graphics firm, which has annual revenues in excess of $2.5 million and does textbook production, including illustrations, typesetting and producing CDs that accompany textbooks, for the textbook publishing industry.
"We do the layout of the book and produce the electronic files that go to the printer," Mellander said. "Our forte and reputation is for the high-end art programs we do."
The business, which employs 17 illustrators, is in the renovated Atkinson Monument building and the adjacent Price building. It is one of the smaller anchors keeping downtown Champaign vital.
And Mellander, who has satisfied his love of architecture by buying and renovating downtown buildings over the past two decades, has become one of the entrepreneurs who have helped lead the downtown revival.
Mellander lives downtown, in an apartment above the Rick Orr Florist building at 122 N. Walnut St., an 1890s-era building that has been nominated as a city landmark and which Mellander owns. The brick, two-story building is an example of a Romanesque Revival building, with cast-iron picture display windows that were once common in Champaign but now can be found on only two other Champaign buildings, according to the report nominating the building for city landmark status.
Mellander, who lived for 19 years in an older house near Champaign Central High School, moved into the upstairs apartment a few years ago in an effort to simplify his life. He says he enjoys living in the downtown area and feeling its newfound vitality.
"I get the urban buzz," he said. "I feel the energy downtown. And it's not just people in their 20s. You look out, and you can see gray-haired people in their 40s or 50s heading out for dinner."
The Rick Orr Florist building was the first downtown purchase for Mellander, made in 1981. It would not be his last.
In 1983, he bought the building at 415 N. Neil St. that houses Carmon's Restaurant. In 1988, he bought the Atkinson Monument building at 106 S. Neil St. and, seven years later, the adjacent Price Paint Store. The two buildings now house Precision Graphics.
In 1992, he bought the building at 121 N. Walnut St. that now hosts Radio Maria. In 1996, he bought the building that formerly housed the Urban League of Champaign County and, after a remodeling and renovation, now hosts Verde Gallery and Coffee Shop.
In 1998, he bought the buildings at 111 and 113 N. Walnut St. that now house World Finance and Bacaro restaurant.
"Jeff was one of the pioneers in the re-emergence of downtown," said Bruce Knight, the city of Champaign's planning director. "He was doing higher quality renovations than most. He was doing upper-floor residential ahead of virtually everybody. He really was ahead of the curve on all of that. A lot of what is happening was built on the foundation he laid."
Mellander was also generous with his time, serving on the Downtown Plan Steering Committee and the Champaign Historic Preservation Commission, Knight said.
"The great thing about Jeff is he doesn't just talk the talk, he walks the walk and follows through on the things you want to see others do downtown," Knight said.
Fellow downtown developer Jon Sokolski, who is one of the two partners developing the $15 million, 130,000-square-foot One Main building, credits Mellander with leading the downtown revival.
"I think Jeff was the visionary," said Sokolski. "He really was the first guy, and he set a standard. If it wasn't for Jeff, perhaps someone else would have come along, but they wouldn't have been as good and creative and as committed."
As Mellander describes it, restoring older buildings to their past glory is "a passion." It was something he was willing to pursue even when there wasn't much activity downtown, he said, and some viewed his investments as risky.
"I enjoy looking under the facade and artificial treatments and digging in there and finding what the real structure looks like, and then I try and work around that," Mellander said. "Renovating older buildings has been my vehicle of expressing architecture. I've never bought anything new. It's always been a renovation of something old. I was intrigued by the projects."
Both the Rick Orr building and the Precision Graphics buildings have been approved by the city Historic Preservation Commission as city landmarks. Both buildings still must be approved by the plan commission and the city council.
The renovations of the buildings that house Precision Graphics took place separately, in 1989 and 1990 for the Atkinson Monument building, and in 1995 and 1996 for the Price Paint Store building. Mellander spent about $1 million on the projects.
"It was the big one," he recalls. "I put the most heart and soul into it because I was the tenant."
The Atkinson building, built in 1904, housed a monument company that produced grave headstones. It's an example of a Richardsonian Romanesque building that was something of a monument itself to the company's stone-crafting skills, according to the landmark nominating petition. The building has rough-hewn masonry and strong rounded arches.
The Price Paint Store building originally was not built to the same style, but as part of the second project, the building's facade was designed to closely match the Atkinson building's look, providing a unified storefront while retaining the historic appearance of the Atkinson building.
Mellander hired one of his UI architecture professors, Jack Baker, to design the projects.
As for his company, Mellander said it has grown steadily through the years. From 1977 to 1990, the business was in a house at 119 W. Washington St., C. The business originally was in the basement, but eventually occupied all three floors before the move to its current facilities.
"We were just bursting at the seams," Mellander recalled.
His company specializes in producing college textbooks and just two weeks ago was named the winner of the star vendor award by McGraw-Hill Companies Inc.
Precision Graphics has evolved to the point where Mellander said he functions more as a chief executive officer and, due to an excellent management staff, he's able to worry less about day to day management.
In his down time on weekends, Mellander, who is single, makes a four-hour commute to Saugatuck, Mich., where he is restoring several cottages on Lake Michigan.
You can reach Mike Monson at (217) 351-5370 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.