CHAMPAIGN — The University of Illinois is looking for a buyer for the historic Colonel Wolfe School building in Champaign, and a local preservationist is concerned the structure could wind up being demolished.
The UI has advertised the 110-year-old former schoolhouse at 403 E. Healey St. as available for sale or swap, with offers due by Dec. 21.
The UI Board of Trustees would consider an exchange of the school property for one that falls within the university’s master plan boundaries or is otherwise located somewhere that would further the UI’s strategic mission, the advertisement states.
The UI is open to all options, but demolition is possible if there aren’t any takers, according to Michael DeLorenzo, UI senior associate chancellor for administration and operations.
“It’s outside of our master plan, and we don’t have anybody in there anymore, and the deferred maintenance on it is getting rather large,” he said. “So we’re looking, basically, to get rid of it.”
Susan Appel, vice president of the Preservation and Conservation Association of Champaign County, contended the university is acting hastily.
She saw the advertisement about the building in mid-November, and prospective buyers have been given just over a month to respond, she said.
UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the university’s facilities and services staff has been working with a state historic preservation group since late last winter.
“Together, they developed the plan we are following now, and the plan calls for listing the property now with its historic covenants in place,” she said. “Should we not get a buyer at market price under this step, the agreement authorizes the demolition of the structure so the parcel can be sold instead.”
‘It’s just sad’
The Colonel Wolfe School building is architecturally and historically significant, according to Appel, also a retired Illinois State University professor of architectural and art history.
Plus, she said, given the building’s location in the midst of an area characterized by “knock down, build new tall towers,” she’s concerned the property could interest a developer and another significant building in the local community will be lost.
“It’s just sad,” she said.
Appel is hoping to raise concerns about the Colonel Wolfe School building in the aftermath of PACA’s lost battle with the Champaign school district over properties in the way of ongoing school building projects.
PACA had hoped to landmark and save three historic buildings on Champaign’s West Church Street — the Burnham Mansion, Capt. Edward Bailey home and McKinley YMCA.
What that defeat, and now the UI’s desire to make a deal for the Colonel Wolfe School building property, says about the community’s interest in preservation, according to Appel:
“It says that there are major entities here who don’t really understand, much less appreciate, the value of maintaining connections to our past, and seeing the community as something that grew through time, and those reminders of the past are useful,” she said. “They give us a sense of perspective. They give us a sense of what has been valued at other times in our history.”
The Colonel Wolfe School building served as a public school until 1964 and a year later was purchased by the University of Illinois Foundation. It was used for a time for College of Education research and as a nursery for special needs and gifted children.
These days, surrounded by a chain link fence and with “stuff piled around it,” the architectural significance of the building may not be all that striking, Appel said.
It’s actually a handsome building, with a brown brick facade set off by contrasting yellow brickwork in diamond shapes and horizontal lines, she said.
“It has an interesting exterior,” she said. “It’s not elaborate, but it has a lively quality.”
The building has a mix of architectural styles and originally had eight classrooms, one in each corner of its two stories, and also has an attic and basement, she said.
“One of the things that marks it, too, is its response to newer ideas in education and in designing school buildings, because the rooms were good-sized, and if you look at the outside you see there are lots of windows so the idea was to bring plenty of light and air into the interior,” she said.
Another significant aspect of the building is that it was designed by Spencer & Temple, an architectural firm that also designed Champaign’s old Columbia School and was prominent in school design during the early years of the 20th century, Appel said.
Not only that, an employee of that firm who worked on the Colonel Wolfe School building, Walter Thomas Bailey, was the UI’s first Black graduate with a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering.
The school itself was named for a local Civil War hero and lawyer, Col. John Simms Wolfe, who was instrumental in raising troops from the area in 1861 and 1864.
“After the war, he went back to his office and was very well known and respected for having great integrity,” Appel said. “He died in 1904, and the school was named for him just the next year, so it was a sign of regard.”
The sale or swap advertisement placed by the UI states the 13,375-square-foot area (including the 10,866-square-foot vacant building) at 403 E. Healey St. has a commercial zoning.
It also warns the sale or exchange of the property is subject to a protective covenant requiring subsequent property owners to comply with historic preservation restrictions and requirements, as determined by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources pursuant to the Illinois State Agency Historic Resources Preservation Act and the state’s Real Property Conversion Rights Act.
The appraised value of the property isn’t being disclosed, according to Bruce Walden, the university’s senior director of real estate services.