URBANA — Amid the apartment buildings and office towers climbing ever higher in Campustown are a few quaint remnants of the business district's early days as a residential neighborhood.
Several houses built in the early 1900s remain, absorbed into the facades of bars, storefronts or restaurants — behind The Clybourne bar on Sixth Street and Papa Del's Pizza on Green Street, for example.
But one freestanding house, mostly hidden until now by commercial buildings, was revealed this summer when businesses at the corner of Sixth and Green streets were torn down to make way for a new $10 million apartment high-rise.
The 2-1/2-story house, which carries the address of 509-1/2 E. Green St., C, has an interesting history to tell — but it's unclear how long it will survive.
It has been used for decades as an apartment house, but the Champaign Fire Department recently deemed it unsafe to live in because the exterior stairs and decks were removed to accommodate the construction project next door. Fire officials also have safety questions about general access to the house in case of a fire, as it will soon be surrounded on four sides by high-rises.
The house is now empty, with boarded-up doors, and the development company that recently acquired it hasn't told city officials what it plans to do with the property.
Now you see it ...
The 14-story building going up at the southwest corner of Sixth and Green required the demolition of the commercial building housing Gameday Spirit, Hair Benders and Beri Frozen Yogurt & Roll Model. A project of Bankier Apartments, the high-rise will have ground-floor commercial space (to be leased by Gameday), three levels of parking and 10 stories of apartments above that, said city planner Rob Kowalski.
Construction started June 1, and the project is scheduled to be completed by August 2014, said Margie Colter, property manager for Bankier.
The upper reaches of the house next door could be seen above the old storefronts if you stood back far enough, Colter said, but "you'd have to be really looking for it." It's plainly visible now behind the construction site on Sixth.
The house, and the 1950s-era commercial building in front of it at 509 E. Green St., are owned by American Campus Communities, a large Austin, Texas-based student housing development company, local officials said. It acquired that property and others in Campustown last fall, including the 309 E. Green St. tower (unofficially known as "the Whopper") and the empty lot at the corner of Fourth and Green streets, Kowalski said.
Fire Marshal John Koller said the exterior stairwell was recently removed from the house, which meant that residents would have only one way to get out in a fire — and that doesn't meet fire codes. It's too easy for people to be trapped in a burning room, Koller said.
Fire Chief Doug Forsman and other firefighters noticed the problem when they were touring other buildings in Campustown in June, Koller said. The house, which has seven one-person apartments, was closed July 1, city officials said.
The house has posed a problem for firefighters ever since another building went up on its west side in 2008 — the seven-story Urban Outfitters building, officials said. Fire trucks can't get through the only vehicle-access point — an alley off Green Street, next to the commercial shops in front of the house.
The fire department is working with the property's owners to come up with an emergency access plan, he said.
Koller said he's also talked with American Campus Communities about its long-term plans for the property, but "we're not sure what the owners want to do."
A spokeswoman for American Campus Communities did not respond to The News-Gazette's request for information this week. A manager at Campustown Rentals, which manages the Green Street property for American Campus Communities, referred questions to the parent company.
Colter said Bankier worked with the house's owners on the staircase issue, but she referred further questions to managing broker Miriam Booth, who was traveling this week.
A Campustown house
Kowalski said officials don't know much about the house's history or "how it got surrounded like that."
Based on records from the Champaign County Historical Archives, the house was built around 1909. It's not listed in a 1908 Champaign-Urbana city directory but appears on a 1909 Sanborn fire insurance map, one of six houses on that side of the block.
Campustown was still mostly residential at that point, said Dan McCollum, former Champaign Mayor and unofficial city historian. Commercial development began sometime after 1900, growing with the university's enrollment.
In 1909, the 600 block of Green, from Sixth to Wright, had a billiards hall, book/stationery shops, a bicycle shop, a cobbler and confectionaries, but there were empty lots in between. And the 400 and 500 blocks were still full of houses, some of them fraternities.
By 1924, the 600 block was full of commercial buildings (save for one fraternity house) — including dance halls, a drug store, a printing shop, and a YMCA at the corner of Wright and Green. Likewise for the north side of the 500 block of Green, with a filling station at the corner of Sixth and Green.
Early records of the house are conflicting about its use. A 1910 city directory shows eight female students living there (one listed as a "domestic"), indicating it was a boarding house, said Denise Rayman of the University of Illinois Archives. It's also listed as the location for Delta Omicron, an honorary fraternity.
But in the 1912 city directory, the only resident listed is J.M. Cockrell, who is identified as superintendent of schools. (Champaign school officials weren't able to find records dating back that far, and Cockrell isn't mentioned in any other records at the Champaign County Historical Archives.) Records show the house was again used as a rooming house in later years.
There's also evidence that the house was moved back off the street to make room for the commercial buildings.
The 1924 map shows the house still fronting Green Street, with a large front porch and a garage out back.
And it's in the same spot in a circa-1940 photograph looking west toward the intersection of Sixth and Green. There are businesses on the corner, but three houses are clearly visible to the west.
But by 1951, documents show, the house had been moved back from the street and a new three-story commercial building fronted Green in its place. Built by Jerome Sholem, the building had first-floor retail with eight apartments on the two floors above, known as the Sholem Apartments. The house behind, now without a porch, became known as the Sholem Apartments Student House.
By then, all the houses in the area had either been replaced by retail buildings or converted to rooming houses, according to the maps.
Just a handful of those houses are left today, including a former fraternity behind Papa Del's at 206 E. Green St., McCollum said. He doubts they have any historical significance, having been through a series of "stepdown uses."
The Green Street house will "be one of the last remaining, and it sounds like its time is coming," McCollum said. "All I have to do is blink and there's another new building in Campustown."
Patrick Callaghan, owner of Jon's Pipe Shop, which has been at 509 E. Green St. since 1961, said he's surprised the company hasn't torn down the house behind his shop. He started working there in 1972 and said the house hasn't changed much in 40 years.
At some point, the house was turned to face west, most likely when it was moved. You can reach it through the alley next to the nail salon on Green. A half-dozen steps lead up to a small yard and front door, now covered with plywood and the words "Keep out." But the house appears well-maintained.
City Council member Michael LaDue, who works at the pipe shop, thinks the house is still appealing for students, and not just for the central Campustown location. Tucked away in the alley, with a wrought-iron door and fire escapes, "it's like a courtyard of New Orleans back there," LaDue said.
Standing near a ground-floor apartment that opens onto the courtyard, LaDue said he'd put a small table and chairs outside and spend his hours reading.
"For a student, how does it get any better than this?" said LaDue, who knew one graduate student who was forced to move out this summer. "I've known people who lived back there for years. People loved living there."