CHAMPAIGN — Frank Lloyd Wright protege Marshall Erdman, once a University of Illinois student, made his mark designing clinics around the country, including in Champaign.
Erdman also founded Techline Furniture, with one of the first stores on Green Street — now at 307 S. Locust St., C.
The architect is responsible for a 1966 dentist office at 919 W. Kirby Ave., C, now the Barham Benefit Group, which still also houses dentist offices.
Barham Benefit Group’s mid-century modern building was something the current owner saw all through his childhood.
“I grew up near the building and later was thrilled to have the opportunity to purchase it,” James Barham said of the mid-century modern building, distinctive for its high windows, extended eaves and gorgeous wooden stairs. “It’s beautiful.”
“The building’s placement of the windows — higher than most — is a common feature of the Frank Lloyd Wright style of architecture, which allows a great deal of freedom in arranging furniture, said Barham staffer Carol Timms, who has thoroughly researched his life. “You will see similar features in Christie Clinic on Windsor — another Erdman building.”
Barham has preserved the era details like turquoise doors (you might remember avocado refrigerators from the times). All the furniture is mid-century modern.
Doctors and dentists shared facilities and Erdman offered ample parking, a tribute to the era of drive-in movies and drive-up hamburger joints.
Erdman’s also famous for pre-fab houses, a new idea at the time that Wright was interested in.
Life Magazine wrote in 1953: “Neither the first nor the cheapest but probably the best-designed manufactured house.”
He spoke of the role of the UI in the prefabrication movement, saying “the University of Illinois was one of the first architectural schools that believed in prefabrication. They had something called the Small Homes Council, and I was involved in that.”
The architect had a wide-ranging life.
Erdman was born in Lithuania. He joined the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1943, where he helped build the Remagen pontoon bridges.
After the war, he found his goal: affordable housing for returning veterans.
Erdman and Henry Peiss formed the “Erdman/Peiss” lumber company to use pre-cut lumber and material in the “U-Form-It.”
Then he went on to apply the prefab concept to buildings for medical clinics.
He also built several Wright-designed houses, according to his New York Times obituary.
“Wright opened a lot of doors,” Erdman once recalled. “Everything I have, I owe to him.”
Marshall Erdman & Associates built 500 houses and nearly 2,500 doctors’ office buildings — the leading provider of small clinics in the country, according to the New York Times obituary.
He also built 17 schools and remodeled or expanded 24 other schools in the Midwest and elsewhere, according to his company. The company still thrives, headquartered in Wisconsin.
Erdman died in 1995.
Erdman received a call to meet his idol, Timms said.
“Wright hired him on the spot to build the first Unitarian Meeting House in Madison, which made his career but cost him his fee, as well as what he had to borrow against his life insurance to finish the job.”
The Wright-Erdman collaboration continues to be lauded as a magnificent structure. In 1957, the Museum of Modern Art included the building in an exhibit of outstanding contemporary religious buildings, and in 1973 it was added to the national Register of Historic Places.
Beginning with the building of Wright’s Unitarian Meeting House, Erdman was known throughout his career to be a perfectionist, Timms said.
Much like Frank Lloyd Wright, Erdman had a unique personal style.
Longtime Champaign Techline co-owner Christine Breen said they probably first met in the mid-80s.
“He was a medium build man with strong eyes, a very strong accent and demanded the attention of any room he was in. Marshall would arrive at the factory after his afternoon nap. It was always apparent he had just awoke, sometimes from the wrong side of the bed,” she said.
“Marshall was a humorous man, strong in his convictions and he was dressed in formal plaid shorts instead of pants, including a tie and jacket. His strong leadership went a long way to build a legacy in the medical, building and furniture field.”
But he did give her one disappointment.
“At the last meeting I attended at the factory, they had a special surprise for all the attendees and I thought ‘A new car!’ like the Mary Kay company,” she said.
Alas, no. It was the book he had written, “Uncommon Sense.”By the way, the original owners of the Kirby Avenue building had to call him back for a little more work.
“He hadn’t included a garbage enclosure,” Barham said. “So the architect designed one.”