Owner of once-popular hotel vows to finish an expensive job
Tim Theesfeld has vivid memories of downtown Urbana in the 1960s.
He spent a lot of time sitting on the steps of his father's Shell station at Green and Broadway. People would honk and wave. He remembers Renner's funeral home, Johnson's bowling alley, the Phillips station.
"I would leave my bike at my dad's place and walk to the Princess Theater for Saturday movies," Theesfeld said. "Sometimes my mom, sister and I would leave the car at the station and walk to downtown, usually stopping at Smith's Drugs for a coke at their soda fountain."
And, of course, the Lincoln Hotel at Green and Broadway. He visited one night in the 1960s — his prom dinner was in the grand dining room. He was impressed by its lavish, even medieval, decor.
"That was the 'in' place to go," Theesfeld said. "Probably the only place in Urbana to go back then."
But that was half a century ago. It's no secret that the hotel in the center of downtown Urbana has fallen on hard times in recent decades, and it's at the center of a lot of other things now — a historic preservation effort, some political maneuvering and a lot of impatience.
It's a key property if city officials hope to encourage more economic activity in the downtown area, and it's not quite up to what they expected when in 2010 they promised a new owner $1.45 million to restore it. Different parts of the hotel have opened incrementally over time, but four years later, not all the rooms are open to the public and the conference center still needs work.
Inside, you'll find a frustrated yet defiant hotelier who is trying to do right by the city but who finds a new problem every time he looks behind a wall or under the floor.
"People have to understand, this is a 90-year-old building," said owner Xiao Jin Yuan. "Every time you open something, you find something unexpected."
But he hasn't given up, and the city's elected officials haven't stopped supporting his efforts, even as administrators start wondering about what's next for the hotel business.
"If people use political maneuvering to force me out, they've found the wrong person," Yuan said.
A brief history
Originally built in 1924 by prolific local architect Joseph Royer, the Urbana Landmark Hotel (as it's now called) has been teetering on the edge for a long time after its early owners, Charles Webber and Gordon Kamerer, sold the place. A plaque in its own lobby acknowledges that.
"During late the 60s and 70s, under new ownership (Carson Pirie Scott, which also owned Lincoln Square Mall), the once grand hotel began to show the ravages of time, and was actually scheduled for demolition when hotelier D. James Jumer purchased it in 1977," the plaque reads.
Under Jumer, it underwent a complete restoration. In 1982, he added a new wing of guest rooms, a banquet hall, conference center and a pool. It hosted the Super Bowl-bound Chicago Bears in January 1986, when they spent a week practicing at Memorial Stadium on their way to New Orleans.
It stayed about that way until 1999, when the owner filed for reorganization under the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. The hotel was sold in 2001. The last decade in particular has been, once again, unkind to the "once-grand hotel." It went through a number of owners between 2001 and 2008, when the bank foreclosed on the property. Yuan bought the property in 2010.
The city promised $1.45 million toward the restoration, and it has already paid much of that to Yuan. Most of that money is qualified as a loan to be forgiven upon two years of continuous operation of the hotel.
City officials originally thought Yuan would have every room open and that clock would start running in 2011. Major renovation problems pushed back the opening date to 2012, and city officials restructured the incentive deal.
The hotel is currently open to guests and has been for more than a year, but Yuan is still working on a wing of rooms and the conference center. City officials have decided that the clock has yet to start running on that "two years of continuous operation" as outlined in the incentive contract, and Yuan is still indebted to the city until that happens.
Yuan thinks he will have every room and the conference center open by the end of this year to fulfill his agreement with the city. He says he has made a lot of progress despite the major issues, and he is pleading for people's patience.
In fact, he's gone above and beyond, he said. He added a canopy out front to provide an appealing entrance for visitors, he said, and he has installed energy-efficient air conditioning in all the rooms. He says he has seen to it that every detail of the restoration is done correctly and will serve the long-term business interests of the hotel.
"You try to do the right thing," Yuan said. "But whenever you try to do the right thing, it takes time."
'Viability as a downtown hotel'
Libby Tyler, the city's community development director, said the hotel still has not reached the bar it needs to clear to fulfill its $1.45 million agreement with the city.
"There's certainly been a tremendous amount of progress made," she said, but there are still some building code issues. Water leaks have breached some walls that are required to slow the progress of a fire if one were to break out, for example, and the city also wants to make sure there are clear exits.
City officials knew that fixing the pool and kitchen would take a long time, Tyler said. But they also thought all the rooms and conference center would be open by now, and that would have led to more foot-traffic and economic activity in downtown Urbana.
That spillover effect is "certainly not at the level we would expect," she said, and that hurts as the hotel is such an important business to the surrounding area.
"We're interested in trying to improve the hotel further and its operability and viability as a downtown hotel," Tyler said.
The patience is growing thin, and that is raising questions about the future of the hotel.
"Moving forward, either he will continue to make the progress and get it fully open and code-compliant and operating," Tyler said, "or we might look at, if that's not going to work, then we need to go back in and do a different timetable or different agreement, or ... position it so that another hotel operator might step in and complete the job."
There are a lot of different avenues, she said, but one of them might include trying to find a new owner.
"We've begun to talk about that," she said. "His home base is in California. He's been out here four years working very diligently, but I don't know if that's going to be a long-term proposition for him."
The city's elected officials are still standing behind Yuan.
"I've seen him work to try to bring the hotel back as a working hotel, so I have a lot of respect for his efforts," said Alderman Dennis Roberts, D-Ward 5.
And the refrain is always the unexpected and major issues during the renovation. There were plenty of roofing and electrical problems. Yuan said every little project became a big hassle.
"Currently, there are people in the city who are very impatient that the hotel hasn't become fully operable and a giant success," Roberts said. "I don't think these people understand the challenges he faced in bringing the hotel back online."
And Mayor Laurel Prussing reminds people about the alternative.
"We'll see people who are critical, but they don't realize that you can't compare the effort to perfection," she said. "You have to compare to what the alternative was. The alternative was to let the building deteriorate and tear it down."
Roberts said he maintains his patience, and he said Yuan is the person who stepped forward to take on the huge project.
"I think the best thing for the city is to continue working with him because we're so close to meeting our needs," Roberts said. "And he's the only one who's going to do this, to be quite honest."
Yuan speaks retrospectively, at times almost regretfully, about the hotel. In a more candid moment, he wonders whether it was a business misstep.
"Did I need this project? No," he said. "I have good a business" at his oceanfront hotel in Crescent City, Calif.
He has some relatives now attending class at the University of Illinois, but his immediate family remains in California. His daughter just turned 15, he said, and was not happy that he was not around to help her with her driving permit.
"I don't have time with my family," he said.
That being said, he's got every intention to keep operating the Landmark Hotel, too. But it's still a business — if a buyer came along offering a good price, he would accept.
Political posturing won't move him, though. He's heard about the complaints and the impatience. He said he's focused on finishing the bulk of the restoration, and when the hotel's income improves, he'll start the major projects of fixing the pool and the kitchen.
When Yuan introduced himself to city officials in 2010, he said his focus would be on bringing traffic to the hotel with modern amenities. In the last year, he has opened a breakfast area for hotel customers and is about to open the conference center.
He said other major projects will benefit the business. He had a large canopy built at the hotel's main entrance. Before, it was a narrow, unimpressive door, he said. Everything he does balances the historic qualities of the hotel with customer experience.
"We had to preserve the historic nature," Yuan said. "At the same time, we had to give it an appealing look for the customers."
Along the way, he's gotten frustrated. He'll show you the pipe that plumbers refused to work on, and the thick concrete floor that took three days to cut just to install a drain to satisfy public health codes. He waits days for contractors to come for service calls, he said. They tell him that if he wasn't such a nice guy, they probably wouldn't come at all.
Was it more than he expected?
"Let me put it this way," he said. "This is a bigger project than anybody anticipated."
What's clear is that the glory days of the hotel have yet to return — when the banquet hall was host to endless wedding receptions and couples spent romantic nights in its suites. And when Theesfeld and many years' worth of prom-goers admired the extravagance of the dining room.
No one is hailing the hotel as they did at its peak, but Yuan is confident he's given the 90-year-old building a few more years.
"I really think I did very good things for the long-term survival of this building," Yuan said.
When Da Bears came to town...
URBANA — Former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka doesn't remember much about the Lincoln Hotel, but maybe the more superstitious of us in town can say it had a little something to do with the Bears' success.
"I just remember it was good luck," Ditka said on Saturday.
That's because, one week after the team stayed at the hotel in January 1986, it went to New Orleans and won the Super Bowl. At the time, it was called Jumer's Castle Lodge.
Ditka said there were no distractions at the hotel or during practice. After winning the NFC title game, the Bears spent four days preparing under a bubble at Memorial Stadium. It gave them a chance to get out of the cold and snow of Chicago and concentrate on preparing for the New England Patriots.
"We wanted to go in to the Super Bowl without worrying about the weather or anything," Ditka said.
It worked. The Bears pummeled the Patriots, 46-10.
As for the hotel itself, those memories are a little more hazy. But the coach certainly did not have any complaints: "The accommodations for us was perfect."
"It was a very good place," he said. "Everybody enjoyed it."
Fans gathered outside the hotel to greet the Super Bowl-bound Bears. Memorial Stadium, on the other hand, was put on lockdown so the players could practice in private.
"There were no distractions," Ditka said. "The people were very nice."