Tom Kacich: Building troubles a 100-year-old problem in C-U
Difficulty building high schools is kind of a tradition in Champaign-Urbana, and it goes back more than 100 years.
This summer, the Champaign school board is wrestling with a host of issues related to building another Champaign Central High School, including where to build it and when to ask taxpayers for the money to finance it.
Coincidentally, 100 years ago both Champaign and Urbana were preparing to open new high schools, replacements for relatively new buildings that quickly became undersized.
In Champaign, the old high school at Hill and Randolph streets had been erected in 1893 and expanded twice but was still crowded. The city was growing rapidly and more young people were opting to seek education beyond elementary school.
Champaign High School's enrollment climbed from 254 in 1902 to 478 in 1912. The school district was renting rooms in downtown Champaign buildings in order to accommodate the overflow.
In Urbana, the Thornburn High School at Springfield Avenue and McCullough Street already was overcrowded despite being just 17 years old. Its enrollment had more than doubled between 1897 and 1914 — from 200 students to 450.
Both school districts undertook major building programs, and both of those buildings — Urbana High School and what now is known as Edison Middle School — are still in service. But their origins 100 years ago were not without problems.
Anticipating construction problems, both school boards scheduled late openings for their new high schools in 1914 — Sept. 28 in Urbana and Oct. 7 in Champaign. But neither school was anywhere near completion when students returned that fall.
Urbana High students continued to attend classes at Thornburn (at the site of what is now the Phillips Recreation Center) until the new building was ready. But Champaign students were forced to move into an incomplete building without blackboards, chairs or even a heating system.
"The oldtimers who attended school under difficulties have nothing on the students of Champaign High School, who started work in the new building today under many inconveniences," the Champaign Daily Gazette reported on Oct. 7, 1914. "Classes were held on the front steps of the building, in the school yard and in the rooms, most of which were only half equipped, In a number of the rooms where the regular seats had been placed there were no blackboards, while in one or two instances two classes were to be found in a room."
Chairs for the school's auditorium had to be borrowed by the nearby Illinois Traction System offices. Dust and mortar littered the school's floors, the Gazette reported, "because no sweeping can be done on account of the fresh varnish."
The principal's office and the teachers' restroom weren't ready. The heating plant didn't operate until more than a week after the school opened. Work on the school lunchroom hadn't even begun (it finally opened Nov. 11) and the gymnasium wasn't close to completion.
Near the end of the month, the Gazette reported that student lockers "will be ready within a few days."
"It has been necessary for the students to wear or carry their wraps and carry all their books as there are no desks to leave them in," the newspaper said. "Those who brought their lunches also have them to take care of."
But lockers weren't assigned until early November, about two months after the school opened.
In the middle of November, the Champaign Daily News reported that workmen still were inside the school, installing cabinets, putting a floor on the gymnasium and its balcony, and working on a basement swimming pool.
"As soon as the gymnasium is completed the indoor sports will be started," the News said. "Basketball teams will be organized among the boys and possibly there will be girls teams. The latter, however, will not be permitted to play outside of the building."
It's unclear when the unusual 44,000-gallon swimming pool was completed, although the school's 1915 yearbook reported that it had been a popular feature and that it was open every day from 3 to 5 p.m.
"The cost of filling the tank once is four dollars and forty cents," the yearbook reported. "Regularly every week the tank is emptied, cleaned and refilled."
Champaign High School remained at the present Edison site for about 40 years, finally moving to what was Champaign Junior High in the mid-1950s.
In Urbana, the high school that was under construction 100 years ago this summer is the same one Urbana teenagers will attend this fall, although it has been remodeled and added onto several times.
And its opening 100 years ago was anything but smooth. At the same time the school district was planning the move to the new building on South Race Street, it had to manage a campaign to pass a $25,000 bond issue that would finance the completion of the school. It passed 128-42 on Sept. 19. Had it failed, wrote the Urbana Courier-Herald, the building wouldn't have been completed.
That wasn't the end of the school district's headaches, though. Over the next few months, the school districts, through the local newspapers, kept promising the school's imminent opening.
"Urbana High School Ready Next Week" — Oct. 22 Champaign Daily News
"New Building Nearly Ready" — Oct. 26 Champaign Daily Gazette
"Urbana School May Move Soon" — Nov. 9 Daily News
Finally, on Nov. 24 — two days before Thanksgiving — the new Urbana High School finally opened.
A small story in the Gazette reported that students and instructors were happy with the new building, which included telephones in every room, a central vacuum cleaning system and a ventilation system that would eliminate the need to open windows.
At a time when construction and population growth in Champaign-Urbana were robust, it was only natural for the editors of the 1915 Urbana High School yearbook to think that another new high school probably wasn't far away.
"The citizens of Urbana have erected a building that should meet the requirements of this city for many years to come; but however long it may remain useful, we look forward to the time when necessity will again touch this community with her wand of progress and produce another building, larger, more grand and more wonderful than the last," reported the yearbook.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 217-351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.