The renovation of a 114-year-old train station in downtown Champaign for a second Black Dog Smoke & Ale House won't be a simple — or inexpensive — task. But the investment — estimated at $1.3 million by city officials — could have a big payoff for further redevelopment of downtown's east side
CHAMPAIGN — The renovation of a 114-year-old train station in downtown Champaign for a second Black Dog Smoke & Ale House won't be a simple — or inexpensive — task.
But the investment — estimated at $1.3 million by city officials — could have a big payoff for further redevelopment of downtown's east side, according to people in both the public and private sector.
Black Dog Smoke & Ale House owners Pedro Heller and Mike Cochran announced in early September their plans to open a second Black Dog in the former depot, located north of the old Illinois Central train station on North Chestnut Street.
The depot — situated just east of the Memphis on Main and former Trader's World pawn shop buildings — is distinguished by the slogan on the east side of its roof — "Champaign-Urbana, Pop. 93,500, Fastest Growing Community in Downstate Illinois."
The building, which dates from about 1899, served as the passenger depot until the larger, grander station to the south was built in 1924, according to former Champaign Mayor Dannel McCollum, who is also the city historian.
It later served as the Railway Express Agency office, which handled packages and parcels transported by rail.
For the last 40 or so years, the building — owned by Dr. William Youngerman — has been used principally for storage. At one time, Champaign police used it to keep impounded bicycles.
Architect Gaylord Swisher, who is working for the Black Dog owners, said the renovations needed are so extensive that "all that's going to remain of the building is the image."
The building needs sprinkler systems, new electrical and plumbing systems, new heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems, a new roof and flooring replacements.
Subtract those, and "really all that's left are the roof trusses and perimeter walls," Swisher said. "It's easier to think of what isn't being replaced than what is."
Nevertheless, "we're trying to maintain the exterior image as much as we can," he said.
"The exterior is the element that everyone appreciates," he said, citing the hip roof, 5-foot overhangs, brickwork with horizontal stone bands, and stonework around the windows.
Perhaps the biggest challenge, from a design standpoint, is the building's dimensions. Swisher said the structure is 21 feet wide and 194 feet long.
"It's essentially the width of your living room times 200 feet," he said. "It's an interesting space to accommodate a restaurant."
Here's what patrons can expect to find, when the restaurant opens for business — currently projected for mid-2014 or beyond:
— The restaurant and bar will be on the south end of the building, with seating for 94 inside. Plans show 29 stools at a snake-shaped bar on the west side, plus booths on the east and west walls, as well as a sprinkling of large and small tables.
It's expected another 56 patrons can be seated outside, just east of the entrance, during the spring, summer and fall.
— The kitchen will occupy the north end of the building, and an area will be added to the north to accommodate coolers and trash.
— The interior will have a "turn-of-the-century" feel to it, Swisher said, referring to the building's 1899 origins.
"We're trying to leave the existing brick walls as much as we can," he added, noting that windows and arches were filled in when modifications were made over the years.
As for the floors, "the finishes will be ceramic and quarry tile and maybe some wood flooring in areas," Swisher said.
— Some of the building's horizontal-sliding doors will be preserved. Those on the west side of the building were loading-dock doors, where wagons and trucks picked up and dropped off packages.
— The shingle roof will be replaced with a roof that looks like slate.
Origins of the project
Alan Nudo, the real estate agent who worked with Youngerman on the project, said Heller and Cochran looked at a number of properties around town, including the former railroad freight building on North Walnut Street, just north of Kuhn's.
Youngerman came up with the idea of using the former train station, Nudo said. On seeing the building, Heller and Cochran could visualize how to make it work.
The biggest sales point, Nudo said, was the 40 parking places adjacent to the station that Youngerman controls.
"The uniqueness of the building is that it's long and narrow," he said. "It's going to have the same feel of Black Dog in Urbana."
But with the outdoor seating, the Champaign location will have "almost double the total seating capacity" of Urbana, he added.
Black Dog opened in Urbana in 2009 in the former Tod & John's tavern at 201 N. Broadway Ave. Since then, it has attracted crowds as well as regional and national acclaim.
Before Black Dog announced plans for the old depot, Maize Mexican Grill revealed its intent to open a second location in the space vacated by Cafe Luna in the former Illinois Central train station to the south.
Maize, owned by Armando Sandoval and Karina Benitez, opened its first location at First and Green streets in Champaign in 2011.
Nudo said those two developments signal that "this is a growth area for downtown for the next 10 years."
"What Black Dog represents to the east side of downtown is the recognition that there's a lot of opportunity in buildings that are undeveloped or underutilized," he said.
Noting that the depot has been vacant for some 40 years, he said the renovation is a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to put the building on the tax rolls and make it a catalyst for the surrounding area.
T.J. Blakeman, a planner for the city of Champaign, said Black Dog and Maize are vital ingredients in the "transformation of the east end of downtown." He said both restaurants have solid followings and proven track records.
Blakeman said the city has estimated the cost of the depot renovation project at $1.3 million.
He said city staff will recommend that the city council consider rebating food-and-beverage taxes and local-option sales taxes for a certain length of time up to a set amount.
The council is likely to review such a proposal Oct. 1, he said.
Blakeman said the project would be eligible for a facade-improvement grant up to $10,000. The project would also be eligible for enterprise zone benefits, including the abatement of county and city sales taxes on materials used in renovation.
A number of other improvements are scheduled for that part of downtown, Blackman said. Youngerman is planning to install more efficient LED lighting to illuminate building and parking lots in that area.
Plus, he's arranging for an 18-foot-tall illuminated art piece at the east end of Main Street.
The work by Stephen Fairfield, known as "Glory Pipes 2.0," features aluminum and steel pipes with mirrors and LED lights that respond to nearby motion.
Facade-improvement grants could also be in the works for the Memphis on Main building at 55 Main St. — to restore its looks from its days as Vriner's Confectionery — and for the former Trader's World building at 57 Main St.
Historic railroad district
Alice Novak, who has taught historic preservation at the University of Illinois for 17 years, said it's remarkable how many old railroad buildings are still standing in downtown Champaign.
"To have two historic train stations next to each other in a downtown is phenomenal," she said. "To see both now in use is even better."
Novak said that in addition to those two buildings, downtown Champaign's historic railroad district includes the former freight building on North Walnut, three frame structures that served as garage or storage buildings, the two-story brick power station and the water tower base.
"Plus, there's lot of brick pavement there that lends character to the space," she said.
"Despite downtown Champaign becoming noted as an entertainment district, the historic railroad district has been its hidden gem. It's been slower to come to use than the core of downtown," she added.
"I give Dr. Youngerman credit for preserving these buildings," said Novak, the longtime chair of the Urbana Historic Preservation Commission and a former board member of Landmarks Illinois.
"Even when buildings aren't used for a while, look what can happen," she said. "He's kept these buildings intact and preserved them even though they've been empty. Now we're looking at a successful addition to downtown Champaign because of that.
"It opens up a whole new realm of things that can happen to downtown."