Guest Commentary: Let Burnhams' benevolence live on

Guest Commentary: Let Burnhams' benevolence live on


The successful effort to defeat two successive bond referendums to replace Champaign Central High School largely came about through the efforts of an ad hoc group of citizens under the name Keep Central Central.

The subsequent and successful effort to pass the $180 million bond issue in support of refurbishing Central High School also was strongly supported by Keep Central Central.

The first two referendums were focused upon the relocation of Central to a remote area well to the northeast limits of the district. This would have resulted in the abandonment of the existing building that is in relatively good condition, more centrally located, and of historical and architectural significance.

In contrast, the proposed, more remote site would have guaranteed traffic congestion and promoted urban sprawl, at a location purchased without the voters' consent.

With the overwhelming defeat of the second referendum and the election of four new members to the Unit 4 Board of Education, it was abundantly clear that there was strong public sentiment for the high school to remain where it was.

The new school board, after an extended and deliberative process, advanced a revised approach to deal with the problems at Central as well as the other capital needs of the district. This was decisively approved by the voters.

One of the main problems to be addressed in "keeping Central central" is its land-locked position. To relieve the situation, the board's only option is to acquire additional properties. The most obvious direction was expansion north across Park Street, where the district already owns some property.

In addition, it also creates access to two large, available properties immediately to the north, across Church Street, as well.

But making this feasible is dependent on the school district's acquisition of the former Albert and Julia Burnham home at the southwest corner of Church and Lynn streets.

Albert Burnham, a successful banker, prompted by his civic-minded wife, was among the very first major public benefactors in the city of Champaign.

After his wife's death, he dedicated land and financed the Julia F. Burnham hospital in her memory, the first hospital in the area. He also provided the funds for the establishment of the Burnham Athenaeum, Champaign's first public library building; this building is still standing today.

The Burnham home, built around 1885, presents a prominent presence facing Church Street. Largely intact on the exterior, it has been much modified on the interior as a result of its conversion into apartments.

Unfortunately, owing to its location and its construction, it cannot be converted to any serious public use, especially educational. It also cannot be economically moved, even should there be a nearby, available location.

Despite this, some support has developed in favor of the preservation of the Burnham home, largely from members of the Preservation and Conservation Association of Champaign County. Unfortunately, given its location and condition, this effort is inconsistent with the effective expansion of Central High School.

Given the background of the Burnham legacy to Champaign, would not it be reasonable to believe that Albert and Julia, were they alive today, would favor the educational use of their homesite for such an important public use, as do their heirs who are present in the community today?

Dannel McCollum is a former Champaign mayor and city historian.

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