CHAMPAIGN — Passers-by might see the last two houses remaining on the first block of East Armory Street as a renovator's nightmare.
Behind the peeling paint, Richard Cahill sees something else — the Craftsman and Queen Anne details, cedar shingles, oak columns, wooden staircase and other reminders of the street's residential past.
Preservationists would like to salvage those architectural pieces before the University of Illinois tears down the houses in a few weeks, but so far the state hasn't granted permission, officials say.
Cahill, a board member of the Preservation and Conservation Association of Champaign County, says it's an example of the deterioration of a longtime relationship with the university to keep architecturally desirable items out of the landfill.
"Their excuse is that we need state permission to dispose of state property," Cahill said. "It's not a computer or a desk or something with an inventory number on it."
The UI says it's trying to get approval from the Illinois Department of Central Management Services to allow PACA to salvage architectural pieces from the houses.
UI Facilities and Services worked with PACA to submit a request in July for the two properties, but "to date there's no current approval to proceed from CMS," said spokesman Steve Breitwieser.
If Facilities and Services doesn't get approval from the state, the houses will be demolished in four to six weeks, he said. Breitwieser had no information on the ultimate plans for the property, and other officials at Facilities and Services declined via spokesmen to answer questions directly.
In years past, PACA supporters said, the university routinely gave PACA advance notice of buildings that were about to be demolished and invited the group to salvage architectural elements.
Cahill has a copy of a 1994 letter from David Garner, then the campus preservation officer, saying the university would administer all requests for salvage operations through PACA because it was "sensitive to many preservation issues" and a conduit for other community organizations and individuals interested in preservation as well.
Until recently, PACA worked closely on salvage operations with Steve Hesselschwerdt, former associate director of space management at the UI. PACA, which later honored Hesselschwerdt with an award, said he was instrumental in allowing PACA to salvage more than 100 building projects.
Hesselschwerdt retired in 2010, and since then the group has had trouble getting information, Cahill said. The university tore down a house on Oregon Street about a year ago, and more recently another at Goodwin and Oregon in Urbana, and PACA found out after the fact, he said. Cahill has photos of salvageable radiators and yellow pine trim in a pile of rubble from the most recent demolition.
Cahill learned of the plans to raze the houses on Armory and asked an employee in Facilities and Services for permission to get inside. He received a new form that now requires permission from Central Management Services in Springfield.
Cahill wonders why the state needs to be involved.
"In the past, they'd assume if they're tearing down a house it's not an inventory control issue, it's just waste stream," he said. "This is really frustrating."
Breitwieser cited the State Property Control Act, which says that state agencies can't dispose of state-owned "transferable equipment" without approval from the Property Control Division of CMS. Equipment that is still "serviceable" must be traded in for replacement equipment; offered to other state agencies; sold to other municipalities or units of local government, school districts or nonprofit; or offered for sale to the general public. Equipment that's no longer serviceable should be scrapped, it says.
Items of antique or historical value are exempt from normal methods of disposal, but they have their own rules and remain under the authority of the CMS director, according to the act. The rules require that the property be lent or donated to public museums or galleries, with the Illinois State Museum and then other state-owned museums or historical sites given right of first refusal. If none of them is interested, the director is to sell the property, with its value determined by a qualified appraiser. The rules do allow for exemptions, however.
"It's a state property management discussion," Breitwieser said. "All the requests for exemptions must be preapproved by CMS. All requests for exemptions must be made on a case-by-case basis."
Robert Nemeth, a former PACA board member and program director at the UI's Smart Energy Design Assistance Center, said he received a similar email response from Jack Dempsey, retiring director of Facilities and Services, who has a new appointment at the UI's Center for a Sustainable Environment.
"That's never been an issue before. This is something the state wouldn't want. We're taking used building materials out of old buildings," Nemeth said.
Nemeth said he has no problem if the state or another contractor would like to reuse the materials.
"I don't care if somebody else besides PACA goes in there. As long as this stuff gets salvaged," Nemeth said.
Hesselschwerdt said the understanding when he was at the UI was that PACA could take anything that was part of the building, but not movable equipment. He isn't aware of any changes in state law that would require the university to change its processes.
"For the past 40-some years, PACA has had a great presence on the campus, and a good working relationship not only with the campus but also with the university accounting office, which was on board with all of this. They were part of the process. PACA was there; they were well-known; they did a lot of great community work and were certainly supported by the campus and everything they wanted to do," he said.
Breitwieser referred further questions to CMS, but officials there did not respond to The News-Gazette's questions on Monday.
"Facilities and Services will continue to work with university property accounting regarding the future of salvaging approval processes with CMS," Breitwieser said.
Cahill feels the current situation contradicts the university's stated commitment to sustainability.
He acknowledges university efforts to preserve some buildings, citing current work at Smith Hall and the recent renovation of Lincoln Hall, where PACA was able to salvage some doors and trim.
"They can be good stewards of the historic built environment," he said.
But his organization has also tussled with the UI on other projects, notably the future of the 1870 Mumford House on south campus, which was built as a model farmhouse and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Details of the Armory Avenue houses
CHAMPAIGN — The houses at 57 and 59 E. Armory Ave. in Champaign are boarded up now but have been used for various university offices over the years.
Until June, the 1-1/2-story cottage at 59 E. Armory was home to the Illinois Radio Reader service, now moved to Campbell Hall in Urbana. And the two-story house at 57 E. Armory was once home to the Slavic Review; a paper pasted over that sign says the office is now at 1207 W. Oregon St., U.
The houses and others on that block were likely acquired by the university sometime after World War II, said Steve Hesselschwerdt, former UI assistant director of space management. Once a residential block, the street now houses mostly apartments and UI buildings, and is down the street from the UI's Abbott Power Plant.
The house at 57 E. Armory is a classic foursquare with Queen Anne details, including medallions and a sunburst over the porch and carved brackets under the windows.
No. 59 is more of a Craftsman bungalow, with a deep front porch, an ornate gable and cedar shake siding.
Inside, both have wood room dividers with columns, radiators, wood floors and trim. The foursquare also has a pocket door and a Craftsman-style wooden staircase with raised panels and carved details on the newel post.
"There's a lot of good stuff in there," said Richard Cahill of Urbana, board member for the Preservation and Conservation Association.
Cahill said records at the Champaign County Archives show the houses were built in the 1920s.
"They are indeed old enough that a historic review might be in order," he said.
Over the years, the house at 57 E. Armory housed a security officer for the Orpheum Theater, a plaster contractor, and a UI professor named Max Beberman, among others, he said. The house at 59 E. Armory was originally occupied by a fireman named Charles McDonald, records show.
In theory, Cahill said, the university could use the houses as educational tools, teaching students how to take buildings apart and reuse or recycle almost everything.
"You could get 80 percent of it if you really work at it, but it takes a commitment," Cahill said.