IO Harris House

The Harris house at Church Street and Prospect Avenue, Champaign, as it appeared at the time of a November 1929 robbery.

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Cops and robbers, gunplay, and high society play major parts in the initial exhibit in Champaign County History Museum’s newly redesigned gallery, “Who We Are: Stories of Champaign County.” The gallery’s focus will change every six months or so. The first exhibition, the “Harris Mansion Heist,” focuses on the robbery that occurred 90 years ago.

The Harris house was built in 1904 by B. F. (Benjamin Franklin) Harris II, son of B. F. (Benjamin Franklin) Harris, who established the First National Bank of Champaign. When B.F. Junior died, the house went to his son, H.H. (Henry H.) Harris.

H.H. and his wife, Hortense, were known for throwing frequent and elaborate parties. One such party was in progress the evening of Nov. 9, 1929, after the Illini-Army football game where the Illini had won 17-7. Some 60 guests were present, including well-known members of Champaign-Urbana society and out-of-towners from Chicago and other Midwest cities.

Bandits, as the newspaper called them, bluffed their way past the doorman, using a gun but claiming it was a joke. They went to the third-floor ballroom and began relieving the guests of their valuables. Police were alerted and arrived quickly. Shots were fired on the stairway and Officer Clyde Davis was injured. A wall panel with a bullet hole from that night and a pistol believed to belong to Officer Davis is part of the exhibit.

Two bandits were taken into custody that night and the others within a month. The exhibit covers the police investigation, fashions of the time, some First National Bank artifacts, and because the robbery took place just 10 days after Black Tuesday, the Great Depression will be included.

The Harris house was re-purposed as Cole Hospital in 1947 after sitting vacant for several years. Cole completed a 65-bed hospital addition in 1979. Carle acquired Cole’s operating license in 1988. The Pavilion took ownership in 1994. The Harris house was torn down in 2012 to make way for a modern addition to The Pavilion.

The annual meeting of the Champaign County History Museum will take place at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 9, at the Champaign Police Station, corner of First Street and University Avenue. All are welcome — you do not need to be a museum member to attend.

Following a short business meeting, Zane Ziegler will give a presentation on the Harris House robbery. We will then adjourn to the museum across First Street for refreshments and to view the new exhibit.

The Champaign County History Museum acknowledges with great sadness the passing of Dr. Susanne Wood. Many knew Sue as the chimesmaster at the University of Illinois. She was also the co-president and treasurer of the museum and served many years as registrar. Sue was a sterling example of the type of volunteer essential to small, independent museums. We are grateful for her years of service.

The Champaign County History Museum is open from 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays. For more information, go to ChampaignCountyHistory.org.

Perry C. Morris is the vice president of the Champaign County History Museum. He is also on the board of the Champaign County Genealogical Society. His area of interest is local theater history and shares what he has learned at cutheaterhistory.com. He can be reached at orpheumhistory@gmail.com.