CHAMPAIGN — From hand-laid tile floors to an old theater sign, the restoration of two downtown buildings is uncovering plenty of Champaign history.
The buildings that housed the 51 Main nightclub and Memphis on Main bar are being renovated into the new Venue CU, announced in October, which will feature a ballroom and a bar/cocktail area for weddings and receptions.
Crews pulled down the old marquee above the doors Friday, including the faded sign for the Illini Theater, an adult movie house that operated at 51 E. Main for 35 years before the building was turned into a bar.
Much of the inside has been gutted, through the exposed brick walls and tin ceilings are being restored.
The interior of 51 Main, formerly divided down the middle by a wall and bar, will be one large open ballroom for wedding ceremonies and receptions, said Greg Bugbee, co-owner of the new business with sons-in-law Dan Church and Casey Gold.
An 8-foot opening is being cut into the wall separating that building from the former Memphis on Main next door at 55 E. Main, which will serve as the bar and cocktail area.
The Venue CU owners are restoring some of the buildings’ original features, including the ornate blue-and-white-tile floor from Vriner’s Confectionary, which opened at 55 Main in 1898 and operated until 1997. During the building’s bar days, the floor was covered with wood and 12-inch-square beige tiles.
Most of the soda shop’s original features are gone, but the owners will keep the wood and stained-glass soda fountain backdrop installed by Vriners in the 1930s, as well as some wood wainscoting on the walls, Church said.
The exterior of 51 E. Main will be restored to the look of the original Varsity Theater, which opened there in 1906 as the first nickelodeon in the area. It began showing films with sound in the 1920s and was renamed the Rex Theater in 1943 after it was remodeled.
“We’re trying to do it right,” Church said. “As we’ve gotten into this project, we’ve realized how much these spaces meant to the community over the years.”
The buildings are owned by Dr. William Youngerman, who owns several other properties in the east end of downtown. Broker Alan Nudo is trying to get that area designated as the Downtown Champaign Historic District.
Church said they did a structural analysis of the buildings before signing on, and engineers “found quite a bit that needed to be done.” Over the years, the support posts holding up the floor had started to rot, he said. Crews were digging new footings Friday.
The bar backdrop is heavy, and “it’s actually starting to lean off the walls,” Church said.
Vriners’ original tin ceiling had also been painted over. Experts were brought in to figure out how to restore it to the original silver to match the ceilings next door, Church said.
The large bar and wall dividing the 51 Main space has been mostly removed. In its place, two columns will be installed and wrapped in brick to meet historical requirements, Bugbee said.
The original main floor was several feet up from ground level, with a stable below for travelers’ horses and carriages, Bugbee said. The upstairs used to be a railroad hotel, he said.
An old staircase is also being removed and a more elegant version installed, leading to a suite for the bride and her attendants. A separate groom’s space is being built in the opposite corner.
The owners saw a niche for a venue with a “downtown industrial vibe,” popular in Chicago and other big cities, he said. Couples will be able to rent the entire venue for a wedding and reception or just one part, he said. They can bring in their own music, flowers and food, or buy a package from Venue CU, which is working with nearby Black Dog, Maize, Flourish, Kuhn’s and other local merchants to provide catering, flowers, tuxes and other options.
“I married out three daughters in four years, and I realize how many decisions you have to make,” Bugbee said.
The plan is to open in mid-May, and 10 weddings have already been booked, he said.
Bugbee owns a company that supplies DJs for weddings in Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. He moved to Champaign in 1999 and performed in the bar at 51 Main as part of a ’70s and ’80s cover band called Run for Cover.
“I would have never imagined that we were going to be taking over this space,” he said.