Burnham Mansion: Asbestos, water damage issues ...

Burnham Mansion: Asbestos, water damage issues ...

CHAMPAIGN — It's still an eye-catcher from the street, this 134-year-old white mansion with a prominent name in Champaign's history.

Inside, the Burnham house is full of contrasts — part old charmer, part just plain old and showing it.

Many of the period details, such as multiple ornate fireplaces, wooden wainscoting, built-ins and a curving main staircase, are still there to behold.

But they vie for attention in the midst of the 1940s carving up of the space into a dozen apartments, complete with tiny, time-worn kitchens and bathrooms and window air conditioners.

On the not-so-charming side, there's asbestos in the construction materials used in several areas of the house. There are areas of damaged flooring. Moisture spots are visible in an upper-story ceiling. So is a post on the second floor that's helping shore up the floor above.

There was also a pervasive musty smell recently, perhaps because pipes burst in the cold and left puddles of water in some of the apartments. In the cavernous basement, there was still more water — plus a steady drip-drip-drip sound.

Champaign school district spokeswoman Emily Schmit said an asbestos abatement will need to be done in the house, and there's asbestos in flooring, piping, flue and duct insulation, windows and glazing, boiler gaskets and insulation.

The gas and water service to the house was turned off months ago, after the school district bought the property to make way for a new parking lot for Central High School and apartment residents moved out. The electricity was disconnected for safety's sake on Jan. 8 after the pipes burst, Schmit said.

"At some point, we hope to get the power back on, when we get it dried out," she said.

Champaign School Board President Chris Kloeppel said the Burnham mansion may have been an exciting place to live — at one time.

But estimates to bring this house up to current building codes and make it a safe and usable place for public use run in the several-million-dollar range — money the school district doesn't have, he said.

"Anybody would be hard-pressed, I think, to say this was a well-maintained home," he said.

'Creative thinking' time

A local citizens group contends the Burnham house is actually in good condition.

It's calling for a moratorium on the district's demolition plans and an extension of time for a public review of the high school expansion plans.

This group has also been collecting signatures by the thousands on an online petition it plans to present to the school board.

In about a week, more than 9,700 people from across the country have signed the petition, and the group quickly revised its original goal of reaching 7,500 signatures to 10,000.

This group has also recently restated its purpose on its Facebook page — to save not just the Burnham house at 603 West Church Street, but also two other houses acquired by the school district to make way for the high school's larger campus — the Bailey house at 606 West Church and the Phillipe mansion (McKinley YMCA) at 500 West Church.

This is round two. The local Preservation and Conservation Association has already mounted a campaign to get the houses landmarked, and the city council turned that request down.

PACA hasn't been involved in the new petition drive, according to its executive director, Thomas Garza.

"The only change — that I am aware of — is that more people are becoming aware of the district's plans to demolish the (Burnham) mansion and are starting to become active in its defense, so there is a bit of a stir lately," Garza said. "But how effective this 11-hour activity will be remains to be seen."

Rebecca Polk, who has been posting updates for the Facebook group behind the petition, said this is a collaborative effort arising from people who care about the Burnham house, downtown Champaign and the community.

She cares a lot about the Burnham house herself. She once lived across the street from it for a decade.

"I am glad that Central is being expanded and renovated in its central location," she said. "I feel strongly that with some creative thinking, we can easily find feasible ways that Central and the Burnham can coexist."

Hometown 'treasures'

Many petition signers have close ties to Champaign-Urbana, care about history and admire the work of the Burnham house's designer, Daniel Burnham, Polk said.

Built in 1884, the Burnham mansion is one of only 10 Daniel Burnham residential buildings in the world, she said, "and we are so fortunate to have one here."

Group member Carol Stanek calls herself a latecomer to the save-the-Burnham-house effort, and her reaction to learning about the school district's demolition plans was: "You've got to be kidding me," she said. "These are treasures of my hometown."

Stanek said plans are to keep up a fight to save the houses as long as they're standing, and that may take finding buyers for them.

"I know it's going to take money," she said about the Burnham house. "That's what people do. They put in money. They restore, and I will do my very best to find somebody."

Kloeppel said he and fellow school board members are well aware of the new petition drive.

The board already considered the pros and cons of tearing down the Burnham house, he said. The district's plans weren't kept secret when the high school expansion project was presented to the community and the voters have spoken.

Walking through the Burnham house from top to bottom, school board Vice President Amy Armstrong said what she sees is expense.

"What I see is millions of dollars of work," she said.

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rsp wrote on January 21, 2018 at 10:01 am

I hope anyone who wants to save the Burnham house takes the time to learn about the legal issues with asbestos and what it means with the house.

abe1809 wrote on January 21, 2018 at 7:01 pm

Any demolition of the building will require asbestos remediation. This is a certainty. Rehab of the building may or may not require remediation, depending on its condition. I don't understand why people think this means demolition is more practical. They are basically saying "If you reuse the building, you'll may have to deal with the asbestos, so we should tear the building down (and definitely have to deal with the asbestos)."

rsp wrote on January 24, 2018 at 1:01 am

There is damaged asbetos in the building, which means in needs to be remediated. It is very expensive to do. The house is in poor condition, it has dry rot, structural issues, etc. It cannot sit empty for years while they raise money for it. The condition will deteriorate as it sits. On the other hand, the school district has planned for the asbestos. They are prepared to deal with it.

aantulov wrote on January 21, 2018 at 11:01 am

Asbestos if handled properly does not have to be removed.  It is visibly present in many homes and the city does nothing to demand its removal. So it is really millions? Why is it Decatur has so many homes preserved and not made to be brought up to so many artificial standards?  There are so many building in great locations that would do that are of no significance why this building?

rsp wrote on January 24, 2018 at 2:01 am

If the asbestos is damaged it has to be removed or sealed. Otherwise people will be breathing in the fibers and get sick. It's part of the building code. The extent of the work depends on the intended use of the building. In any case, the asbestos in this building has been damaged and would need to be addressed.

rmpolk wrote on January 21, 2018 at 11:01 am

PLEASE consider signing the petition to save the very historic 1884 Burnham House in Champaign designed by one of the most famous architects in the country, Daniel Burnham, who also designed NYCs Flatiron Building, Wash DC Union Station and National Mall, the Field Museum, Chicago Worlds Fair, CAs Mt Wilson Observatory + 300 more. We are very fortunate to have one here in Champaign.

The petition can be found here:



RGs wrote on January 21, 2018 at 12:01 pm

Probably Daniel Burnham's most widely recognized work:


Image result for Flatiron Building NYC





'When the Fuller Building (the Flatiron’s original name) opened in 1902, the improbable tower captured viewers’ imaginations. It seemed to symbolize the burgeoning city’s ambition and progress. Yet not everyone admired the unique structure. The New York Tribune called it “A stingy piece of pie … the greatest inanimate troublemaker in New York***,” and the New York Times declared it a “monstrosity.”

The Flatiron soon attracted the attention of artists. It is the subject of now-classic photos by Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz, as well as paintings by artists including John Sloan and Childe Hassam. Almost immediately, the fascinating building was featured on postcards, which made it a familiar icon of New York City.

The Flatiron Building was designated a NYC landmark in 1966 and a National Historic Landmark in 1989. The trendy area surrounding the building is now called the Flatiron District. In 2009 the Sorgente Group, an Italian real estate investment firm, bought a majority stake in the Flatiron Building. They will convert the building into a luxury hotel in 2019, after tenant leases expire.'


***Proved its critics of the time wrong.

Experienced preservationists know the status of Burnham. Hence, their offer to purchase. I am not sure of Unit 4 board members' intimacy with such projects, as their statements seem discordant with those of the preservationists. 


champaign61821 wrote on January 22, 2018 at 9:01 am

Ms. Polk, you said "we are so fortunate to have one here." Can you tell me how much in tourism money Champaign gets in a year from people wanting to see Burnham mansion? If it's rehabed, how much in city and county sales tax revenue will tourism bring? The answer is basically zero. No one, outside a group of boisterous preservationists even care about old manions like this. Where were the "preservationists" over the years when this building went into disrepair? Where were the "preservationists" when the plan was first announced almost two years ago? 

This is such an asinine waste of the board's time to have to deal with "preservationists" now at this point in the process. How much taxpayer money is being wasted by district attorneys having to deal with you "preservationists"? Just go away.

RGs wrote on January 22, 2018 at 10:01 am


The board pulicly stated in summer of 2016 that they were going to be involving preservationists in the planning process. They then proceeded to sessentially privately ignore them, only to turn around down the roard to paint an narrative that their involvement was too late in the process. Strung them along, until they had tax payer money in their back pockets. Check mate. The people who genuinely believed them were shafted. Education does not end. Athletics don't end. It's not the end of the construction process, if Burnham stands. If Burnahm is put before the wrecking all,---there---, in that, you have an end to something. 

Thewatcher wrote on January 22, 2018 at 10:01 am

You're arguing about this place is moot.  Unit 4 will not sell this place back and derail their plans.  They were met with torches and pitchforks when they weren't keeping Central central.  They finally found a way to keep Central central, and finally have everything they need to proceed.  You think they're going to sell it back and go back to the drawing board?  All of your points are moot.  You're not going to get sympathy.

RGs wrote on January 22, 2018 at 11:01 am

Back to the drawing board? Where are the details, specifics of that narrative? There will likely be many adjustments throughout the construction process that will need to be adapted to. Characterizing this as knocking the whole thing back to the drawing board seems dramatic given ivolvement of the Perkins & Will firm. They aren't novices. It's not about sympathy. It's about recognizing that this building meets the criteria for a national historic landmark. Actively wiping it out of the community, and, existence, is the wrong thing to do. The voters have spoken narrative isn't quite accurate, factual. You can't say people voted to demolish Burnham, when they were never posed that question. Voters can assume a lot of different things, but, it comes down to what the lanuage of the ballot was. 

RGs wrote on January 22, 2018 at 10:01 am

The voters have spoken, to demolish Burnham? Such is the narrative put forth. Applying a "reasonable person" standard, is the language consistent with voters knowing that by voting "Yes to education," they would be voting for demolition of Burnham. People did try to dig deeper in trying to make an informed decision and some were consistently ignored in their pursuit of specific details concerning preservation. Supporting efforts against deforestation isn't about saving one tree and mowing down the rest of the forrest. Compromise? Ulimately it is Burnham, of all the historic structures the board acquired, that is being pleaded for. The place was not in any sort of unusual disrepair (for a house of its age) until its acquisition by the board/school district. 

This was the ballot language (from Unit 4's website):

"Voters residing within Unit 4 were asked to indicate "yes" or "no" to the following question:

Shall the Board of Education of Champaign Community Unit School District Number 4, Champaign County, Illinois, alter, repair and equip the Central High School Building, build and equip additions thereto, and acquire and improve the site thereof; improve facilities at Franklin Middle School, Spalding Park, and McKinley Field; alter, repair and equip the Centennial High School Building and build and equip additions thereto; demolish the existing Dr. Howard Elementary School Building and build and equip a new Dr. Howard Elementary School Building on that site; alter, repair and equip the South Side Elementary School Building and build and equip an addition thereto; alter, repair and equip the International Prep Academy Building and build and equip additions thereto; alter, repair and equip the Edison Middle School Building and build and equip an addition thereto; and issue bonds of said School District to the amount of $183,400,000 for the purpose of paying costs thereof?"





KlaatuSansGort wrote on January 22, 2018 at 2:01 pm

This is a sad story at each of various levels.

Perhaps a common theme is lack of foresight.

The mansion might well have first been preserved decades and generations ago when it was instead chopped into apartments. Such might tend to make a present call for preservation ring hollow.

Yet purported educators who would eviscerate and raze a true architectural treasure are perhaps similarly shortsighted. Yes, it might take millions to truly restore the mansion. Yet our elected educators are spending many millions more in a broader effort.

What if the school district itself at last chose to restore the mansion to original splendor?

Generations of students could walk up that staircase and learn about architecture, craftsmanship, and American and local history.

As things now stand, the mansion is to be razed to make space for a parking lot, in which students will at best park and at worst smoke.

Is this really the best any community can do?

Objective Reporter wrote on January 23, 2018 at 1:01 pm

How about the district sells it to PACA with the condition that PACA pays to have the house both restored to its original splendor and moved to a different site?  Done.  Problem solved.

rsp wrote on January 24, 2018 at 1:01 am

What about the ones who can't walk? Wheelchairs can't go up stairs. Do they miss out or should their classmates drag them up so they can participate? School districts have to serve everyone so to keep it it has to be handicap accessible.

rmpolk wrote on January 23, 2018 at 1:01 pm

The Hursts carefully divided the Burnham into apartments while retaining the architectural integrity and periodic details intact. The solid black walnut panels, staircase dozens of fireplaces, hardwood and parquet floors are all there. The marble (!) rare ribcage shower, etc. Experienced preservationists know how to restore buildings. I trust their knowledgeable regarding costs and feasibility.

Historic homes are repurposed all of the time but still remain historic landmarks that add much to the community directly and indirectly. Burnham could be a location for weddings, graduation parties, events, etc. Take the historic home in Chicago that is now home to the US Soccer Federation. Others are converted to offices. There are multiple examples of restoration and repurposing working successfully and adding economic value to the town.  The Dana House in Springfield was saved from demo and now brings in $120K/year from historic tours plus all indirect gains in tourism dollars at hotels, restaurants, etc. There is a huge interest in mansions of the guilded age and a huge interest in Daniel Burnham. And Champaign has one of only 10 Daniel Burnham-designed mansions in the entire world. That could be made into a big draw for the city.

Objective Reporter wrote on January 23, 2018 at 1:01 pm

Dear PACA -  Buy it, move it, fix it, done.

Thewatcher wrote on January 24, 2018 at 7:01 am

You're delusional if you think A) fixing this place up will add economice or tourist value to the city, and B) if you think it's in the best interest of the city to fix this place up and have to heavily rework their plans for the school.

Where have these experienced preservationists been all of these years?  Why was nobody doing anything until all of a sudden the house was on the chopping block?

Thewatcher wrote on January 24, 2018 at 7:01 am

You all don't get it.  It's taken this long for Unit 4 to get these plans together.  They've faced a mountain of obstacles to finally please the community the best they can while still providing for the school.  So now you're saying give up part of that plan?  Of course they'll have to go back to the drawing board, use your common sense.

Where were all of these supportes of the mansion before it was to be destroyed?  I believe there have been quite a few years where someone could have come in and fixed this place.  But nobody ever did.  Like most, they only care about something when they have something to lose.  It's too late now.  The mansion is going.  Until Unit 4 is presented with a viable alternative that won't cost them more money or time, the mansion is going.