Filed Under Architecture

Burnham Antheneum

ARCHITECT: Julius A. Schweinfurth
LOCATION: Champaign, IL

Burnham Athenaeum was originally built to be the public library for Champaign, but it has been changed since 1896. The Champaign Public Library and Reading Room dates back to July 21, 1876, but can be dated back to 1868, when there was a large Reading Room with about 300 books. In 1894, Champaign banker and philanthropist, A.C. Burnham donated $50,000 as a gift for an actual library. $40,000 was used for the land, and construction, while $10,000 was used to buy more books and supplies for the library. The Burnham Athenaeum, designed by Julius A. Schweinfurth, was completed on December 17, 1896. The library, originally a memorial for A.C. Burnham’s wife, Julia Finley Burnham, finally closed its doors in 1978 (Champaign Public Library). When the Champaign Public Library closed, it had over 100,000 books and 40 employees, a huge increase from the 5,593 books, and only two librarians (Champaign Public Library).

Since 1980, Meyer Capel, a law firm, has called Burnham Athenaeum home. Meyer Capel could not move right into the building because the structure had a fire in October 1979. ("The Burnham Athenaeum") Most of the wood paneled ceilings, decorative wood molding, columns, and fireplace were preserved, but not everything was fortunate to survive. What did not survive was restored to the best ability to keep the heart and detail of the old building, but some modern touch was added to make the building a functional work place.

Julius A. Schweinfurth was a famous architect from the Boston area, but also did a few projects outside his normal Boston. In 33 years, Schweinfurth built over 70 building, and he was known for designing many public buildings. Burnham Athenaeum was designed to be the Public Library of Champaign. The new library was supposed to be a fireproof building, but in 1979 a fire proved this fireproof building wrong, but many of the significant items were kept safe.

The donation of the new Champaign library was received in 1894, but the construction only started in 1896, when Julius Schweinfurth left the architecture firm Peabody and Stearns. There is an uncertainty of whether the design of Burnham Athenaeum was of Julius Schweinfurth, when we worked on his own, or if it was when he was still working with Peabody and Stearns. Because of this, both the information of the architectural firm Peabody and Stearns, and Julius Schweinfurth’s own work will be explained below.

Julius A. Schweinfurth was born on September 20, 1858, in Auburn, New York. Schewienfurth started his career in Boston when we started working for Peabody and Stearns architectural firm in 1879 ("Finding aid for the Julius Adolphe..."). Schweinfurth worked for Peabody and Stearns until 1895 when Schweinfurth decided to open his own practice. From 1895 to 1928, Schweinfurth designed more than 70 buildings ("Finding aid for the Julius Adolphe..."). Most of the buildings he designed were in Boston, but he did design several school, residential, and public buildings outside of Boston ("Finding aid for the Julius Adolphe...").

Peabody and Stearns was considered by many as “Boston’s leading architectural design firm” (Peabody & Stearns). This firm was something special because of the quality of every design, and being a training place for starting architects. Peabody and Stearns was known for the several landmark building in Boston, such as Park Square Station, Custom House Tower, The R.H. White Warehouse, and the Exchange Building in Boston’s financial district (Peabody & Stearns).


Bradley Chapel at Fort Hill Cemetery

Thomas Mott Osborne House at 120 South Street, Auburn

James Street school, the site of the Auburn Post Office property


Detail of inscription Image courtesy, all rights reserved.
Portrait of A. C. Burnham Image Courtesy the Champaign Public Library
Champaign Public Library (Burnham Athenaeum) Photo courtesy Richard Urban via Creative Commons license BY-NC-SA 2.0



Sai Hi , Viktorija Stropus , and Zhou Yu, “Burnham Antheneum,” ExploreCU, accessed June 30, 2022,