Historic Downtown Champaign

“Without transportation, nothing happens.” – Anke Voss of the Champaign County Historical Archives at the Urbana Free Library

The story of Champaign begins with Urbana and the railroad. In 1833, Senator John Vance introduced a bill that would create Champaign County with Urbana as the county seat. The location selected for Urbana was known as Big Grove. Growth to this area was slow but steady. Early colonists preferred to settle in wooded areas–as opposed to prairie–where timber and water was easily accessible. Timber accounted for 20% of the surrounding area at that time while prairie made up 80%. In 1850, President Fillmore approved a land grant for the Illinois Central Railroad. Multiple routes were considered, including one through Urbana, one going slightly west of Urbana, and another through Danville. The route that ran two miles west of the Urbana courthouse was chosen.

The first train pulled into West Urbana station in 1854 and with it came more economic opportunity than could be imagined. By 1857 business facilities in the town of Champaign consisted of eight dry goods stores, five hardware and stove stores, two jewelers, four warehouses, three millinery (women’s hats) stores, three blacksmiths, and one dentist, with at least ten more different types of businesses. In 1857 the area was incorporated as the village of West Urbana. The first large plat was a two-block space designated as a public square in what is now West Side Park (stops #14 and #15).

In 1861 Champaign–meaning “low-level plain”–received its charter of incorporation as a city and continued to grow around what is now downtown Champaign. The university, which was then known as the Illinois Industrial University, opened six years later in 1867. Around this time many legendary businesses set up shop downtown. In the 1860’s and 70’s, two of the longest-running retail stores in the area opened–Joseph Kuhn’s and Robeson’s (now the Robeson Building, stop #19). As the landscape of Champaign changed, transportation shifted gears to keep up with the bustling downtown area. From the late 1860’s to the late 1930’s local public transit included horse-drawn railways; an “electrified” streetcar system; and city buses.

By the end of the century, downtown Champaign continued to grow with very little indication that it would stop. Students came to the university in droves, bringing great economic impact to the area. Life in downtown Champaign consisted of everything from vaudeville at the Eichberg and Walker Opera House (#12) to sodas at Swannell’s. At this time the city also began to establish crucial municipal institutions: the City Building (#10), police and fire departments, and gas and electric companies.
The Historical Champaign Downtown tour will lead you on an exploration through the rich history of the development of downtown Champaign. Each landmark tells a different piece of the story of Champaign’s growth from a small frontier train station to one of the largest metropolitan areas in Illinois.

New Orpheum Theater

Built in the Classical Revival style, this beautiful 800 seat theater was constructed by the famous architects Cornelius and George Rapp of Carbondale, IL. George was a graduate of the University of Illinois School of Architecture. in 1899. Their…

Flat Iron Building

The Flat Iron building was designed and constructed by S.P. Atkinson of the S.P. Atkinson Monument Building at 106 South Neil Street. Many of the features of the flat iron can be seen on the South Neil Street building. The Gazette building was often…

Downtown Fountain

Unfortunately not much is known about the origin of the Downtown Fountain. What is known is that this landmark shows up in photographs before the turn of the 20th century. The 1887 Sandborn fire insurance maps show a well at this location which leads…

Willis Department Store Building

Godfrey Willis immigrated from England in 1872 by way of Philadelphia, and together with Harry Scott opened G.C. Willis Department Store seen here on the right. Lasting over 84 years the building would eventually lose its historic appearance and…

First National Bank Building

Constructed in 1909 the First National Bank Building represents one of the first steel-constructed buildings in Champaign. The Chicago firm Mundie and Jensen built the Second Renaissance Revival building to represent the strength of the financial…

Illinois Central Railroad Terminal

When completed in 1924 this beautiful Beaux-Arts inspired station was promoted as the largest and most complete structure of its kind in any city the size of Champaign. At the time the populationwas 15,873. The station was constructed at the same…

Inman Hotel

On March 11, 1915 local businessman George Inman opened his grand hotel with a magnificent dinner prepared by a new chef brought straight from Boston. Over $200,000 was invested in its construction and it quickly became the most elegant and plush…

City Building

Constructed between 1935 and 1937, this Art Deco icon stood as the tallest building in Downtown Champaign when completed. This building replaced the 1889 building designed by Seeley Brown. The building was designed by George Ramey and funded by the…

Lewis Department Store Building

Matched only by the F.K. Robeson Company, W. Lewis Department store was a solid anchor of retail in Downtown for over sixty years. Started by Wolf Lewis, who followed his father and immigrated from Poland in 1897, it began as a small dry good store…

Walker Opera House

Built by John “Wall” Mulliken of Walker and Mulliken Furniture Store, The Walker Opera House was one of Champaign’s first theaters. Unlike most of the Vaudeville houses built before it, the Walker was a theater in the true sense with a large…

Virginia Theater

For over 80 years the Virginia Theater has served and queen of downstate theaters. This 1,800 seat movie palace, designed by C. Howard Crane and Kenneth Franzheim, opened on December 28, 1921. The building combines Spanish and Italian Renaissance…

West Side Park

Originally laid out as a public square and potential site for a new County Courthouse, West Side Park, formally known as White Park was named for John P. White who donated the land the park now sits on. At the time of its construction the City of…

First United Methodist Church

Built in 1906 the present church represents the third Methodist Church to occupy the site at Church and State Streets. The Methodist congregation was organized shortly after the Illinois Central Depot was complete in 1854. After locating in several…

First Presbyterian Church

In 1850 the First Presbyterian Church Organized in a wood frame structure built at Hill and State, unbeknownst to congregation, they would become the longest organized church in Champaign. Shortly after they began to outgrow their building, the small…

Masonic Temple

The Masonic Temple was dedicated on January 9, 1914 by Henry T. Burnap, Most Worshipful Grand Master. This grand space was described in the following text taken from the dedication program in 1914: “This building is 79 X 109 feet, having the main…

Robeson Building

There is perhaps no one department store more synonymous with Downtown Champaign than F.K. Robeson’s. Frank Kurn Robeson started his department store business in 1874 in the building currently known as the Metropolitan Building at 223 North Neil…

Park "Art" Theater

Designed in 1913 by Chicago architect Lewis E. Russell, the Art stands as Downtown’s longest continuing theater. The owner of the building was B.F. Cooper who choose many of the details based on this tours of leading playhouses in Chicago. Local…

Russell "Rialto" Building

The Russell Building was built in 1905 at 121 - 123 West Church Street. On Tuesday November 12, 1915 Mr. and Mrs. Charles Russell opened the Belvoir Theater. The theater was built for stage shows as well as films with the opening show being…