Small crowd rallies to save Burnham Mansion from Unit 4's wrecking ball

Small crowd rallies to save Burnham Mansion from Unit 4's wrecking ball

CHAMPAIGN — In 1961, when Bill Applebee was 10 years old, his family moved into the home next door to the Burnham Mansion.

Applebee said he often climbed trees outside the historic building. He played football in the mansion's front yard. And each day after school, he would deliver The News-Gazette to the mansion's residents as part of his paper route.

"This building should be saved," Applebee said Thursday evening during a rally along Church Street outside the mansion. "When they had the vote to keep Central central, people didn't realize they were going to tear up the neighborhood as well."

Applebee was one of about 90 people who braved blustery 42-degree temperatures for a protest in a last-ditch effort to try to convince the Champaign City Council to overturn the plan commission's recommendation against granting historic preservation status to this and two other buildings slated for demolition as part of the planned expansion of the Champaign Central High School campus.

Champaign school officials have proposed converting the Burnham property into a parking lot. Buildings at two other nearby properties are also slated to be razed for high school athletic fields.

For more than an hour, many of the rally participants held signs bearing slogans like "History Trumps Parking" and "Save This Mansion." Others clutched lighted candles and waved to passing vehicles.

Dozens of motorists honked horns as they drove by to show support, but one man opened his car window and yelled, "House go down!"

One of the participants, Devra Strebeck, said she had lived in one of the Burnham Mansion apartments until August.

"It is a really special building," Strebeck said. "We had a really good group of people who lived in there. I think there is a fireplace in almost every apartment, and some of them have two fireplaces. And it has French doors. I was happy there, and I thought I was going to stay there forever."

The whole event was organized by Adam Smith of Champaign, who described himself as an architectural historian.

"This is a Burnham and Root designed house from 1883 and 1884," he said. "Burnham and Root is one of the pre-eminent architectural firms in the history of the United States. It is an exceedingly important piece of architecture to keep for another 133 years."

Smith was one of many participants who said they wouldn't be satisfied with anything less than leaving the mansion as it is.

"Typically, for historic preservation, you always want buildings to remain where they were built," Smith said. "Moving is the second-to-last resort. Demolition is obviously the last resort. Keep this one house."

"Moving it would be very, very complicated," said Susan Appel, who submitted the documents to grant the mansion historic preservation status. "There isn't a space that is large enough for it. As I look around here, I see all these wires. With the number of trees on Church Street, moving it would be very, very hard."

"I'm from a country that feels very deeply about history, charm and personality," said Sylvie Capell, a native of England who now lives two blocks away from the mansion. "Tearing this beautiful building down will turn Champaign into a concrete jungle."

"It's a majestic home worthy of being on the National Registry," said former Urbana Mayor Tod Satterthwaite. "It's a unique place, and most of the features are well cared for. There's a grand staircase and built-in book cabinets. It's a piece of history we should cherish."

"I drive and walk by this mansion almost every day," said Elizabeth Bastian, who lives two blocks away. "I understand the high school is in a lose-lose situation, but I think this is a beautiful building. To be torn down for a parking lot doesn't make a lot of sense to me."

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ERE wrote on December 01, 2017 at 8:12 am
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Isn't addressing the needs of the kids of Champaign, who have had a great culture at Champaign Central but a woefully inadequate physical school for decades, much more important than preserving this Temple of the Historic 1%?

abe1809 wrote on December 01, 2017 at 11:12 am

You are right to support the students, but presenting this as students vs. cultural heritage is a false choice. Many schools occupy historic buildings and provide a state-of-the-art education. And even if the school district has zero interest in occupying additional historic buildings, there are creative ways to expand and respect significant buildings of our history.

bethane wrote on December 01, 2017 at 11:12 am

It has nothing to do with being "interested" in historic buildings; there is simply no extra money lying around.  As for applying "creativity," the time for that was during the planning stage, not now that the school board is ready to move forward.  Where was PACA then?

abe1809 wrote on December 01, 2017 at 12:12 pm

Preservationists have been urging the School District to consider neighborhood design and cultural heritage for two years (see Landmarks Illinois' 2016 Most Endangered Historic Places). Yes, the planning stage was a time for creativity, yet the planners demonstrated none of it. The neighborhood is getting a sprawl school design layered on top of it. Given the option for the school to expand sensitively (at minimum avoid Burnham) or expand like in sprawl, which should the community support? The easy path - prentend we're building in a corn field - isn't always the best. We should let our elected officials know this.

Objective Reporter wrote on December 01, 2017 at 9:12 am

Knock it down or allow PACA move it.  They've known about the school district's plans from the get go.  Adios, casa.

silvdbs wrote on December 01, 2017 at 10:12 am

They aren't tearing it down to simply "build a parking lot". They are tearing it down to expand and renovate the high school. They need to put a parking lot somewhere, and the planners have determined this is the best location.  Every educated voter knew some old houses around Central would need to be demolished.

rsp wrote on December 01, 2017 at 10:12 am

There is no way that building could stand for another 133 years. It's a dying building that is decaying from the inside out. It probably has dry rot. At one time it was beautiful but it's been years ago. I'm shocked there were people living in it just months ago when there are questions about it's stability. I'm sad to see it go but it hasn't been maintained well. It takes a lot of money to keep up a house like that and if you don't they can suffer substantially. It becomes unsubstainable.


There were multiple stories in the NG about the fact the houses were going to be either moved or torn down from the very beginning. In fact, PACA stated that the houses couldn't be moved. So if they can't be moved, they will be torn down. I suggest they be salvaged of what is still good in a very careful manner because I do not believe that house is stable.

abe1809 wrote on December 01, 2017 at 12:12 pm

As for lasting for the next 133 years, I'll take any 100 year old building over a house built today. Yes, both will need new roofs and maintenance, but any building expert will tell you that most 19th century buildings were built like tanks. Peeling paint and cracks in the plaster may be enough for you to comdemn it, but thankfully the communities that are benefiting (cultural, economic, sustainability) from their historic architecture know better.

rsp wrote on December 02, 2017 at 7:12 am

You are assuming that this house is built like a tank. It's not. There are major structural defects in it. Structural defects are not paint and plaster.

bethane wrote on December 01, 2017 at 10:12 am

This is the price of "Keeping Central Central." I am amazed that anyone is surprised that some buildings would have to go as a result of that vote.

Keeping the Burnham Mansion for "educational use," as one of the protesters suggested to me when I drove by, would be very costly and result in an inferior facility. It is a shame that a nice town like Champaign has had to wait so long to get a decent high school, and now these protesters are trying to throw up yet another road block to its construction.

The time for saving the Mansion was long ago; PACA missed that boat.

Objective Reporter wrote on December 01, 2017 at 10:12 am

Maybe Stephen Kaufman can save it if he whines and cries that tearing the building down offends him.

BruckJr wrote on December 01, 2017 at 4:12 pm

Why doesn't PACA buy the building from the school district and do with it as they will?  The school district, in turn, could purchase another site for the parking lot.

RatDog wrote on December 03, 2017 at 12:12 pm

What does a soccer field & a swimming pool have to do with education? Nuthing. But it's more expense for the tax payer. Eliminate those silly, wasteful sports facilities.

rsp wrote on December 03, 2017 at 12:12 pm

Team sports teach leadership and teamwork skills. I have mixed feelings about the pool. Even though it was available when I was in high school we never had the chance to use it. Many in the class were afraid to use it because they couldn't swim. It's a vital skill that prevents drownings and promotes health but I think it should be focused at a younger age instead of just a few who are on a swim team.

CU_townie_2_time_UI_grad wrote on December 04, 2017 at 10:12 am

Quality high school facility > historic mansion.

Keep Central Central insisted on not using the interstate drive site, so this is the result.  Knock it down.

Thewatcher wrote on December 05, 2017 at 7:12 am

First everyone complains about not keeping Central central, and now they don't want them to make the room necessary to keep Central central.  Sorry, but the house has to go.  Is PACA going to pay for its upkeep and make it a habitable, suitable building?  No.  The building is going.

ClearVision wrote on December 06, 2017 at 10:12 am

Rather than building a modern facility where there was plenty of space to house all activities associated with a 21st Century high school, ignorant voters chose instead a nostalgic but misguided 19th Century option. Ironically, this means tearing down actual 19th Century landmarks. 

Anyone who has lived through the aging mess that is the current Central High, with its inadequate-- or simply nonexistent-- facilities like parking, cafeteria, music, football, swimming and diving, etc., or have seen the vehicular congestion and mayhem caused by the location of the school cannot sensibly think a cramped in-city location wil give our future students what they deserve. Those of us who were fortunate enough to travel to other schools for sports, drama, music and other activities saw how great our younger siblings could have had it with a modern school on a spacious setting. Normal Community High School is a wonderful example of what we could have had in this community. Too bad local voters let their own willfull ignorance get in the way of what was best for our students and community by rejecting the only sensible option.


aantulov wrote on December 06, 2017 at 6:12 pm