News Local/State

Plan Commission Says ‘No’ To Landmark Status For Buildings In Path Of High School Expansion

Champaign Unit Four School Board President Chris Kloeppel and attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, testifying before the Champaign Plan Commission.

Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald (right), representing the Champaign Unit Four school district, addresses the Champaign Plan Commission Wesnesday, arguing against city landmark status from three homes on West Church Street slated for demolition for the expansion of Champaign Central High School. Unit Four School Board President Chris Kloeppel (left) sits next to him. Jim Meadows/Illinois Public Media

Two weeks after the Champaign Historic Preservation Commission nominated three buildings for historic landmark status, the Champaign Plan Commission has recommended denying that status, to allow for the expansion of Champaign Central High School.

At issue is whether the three former residences on West Church Street can be torn down for parking and athletic fields in an expanded Central High School campus. The buildings in question are the Albert & Julia Burnham mansion at 603 West Church Street, the McKinley Memorial YMCA, also known as the Philippe residence at 500 West Church Street, and the Capt. Edward Bailey home at 606 West Church Street.

The Champaign Plan Commission voted Wednesday to recommend denial of landmark status for the three buildings, after hearing from the Champaign Unit Four school district, which acquired the buildings earlier this year.

Susan Appel, who submitted landmark applications for two of the buildings, told the panel that she expected the city to deny the request for landmark status. But Appel, a board member with PACA, the Preservation and Conservation Association of Champaign County, said the application was valuable for other reasons.

“One of the purposes for these nominations was to record and document these buildings as structures of great worth, in spite of Unit Four’s apparent disregard for that worth,” said Appel.

Appel had made similar remarks before the Champaign Historic Preservation Commission two weeks ago, when that panel voted to nominate the three buildings for landmark status. But in addition to the buildings’ historic value, the Plan Commission was also charged with weighing those values against other concerns, including the concerns of the owner, the Champaign Unit Four school district. And the school district has consistently argued that keeping the buildings would endanger plans to renovate and expand Champaign Central High School,  plans being financed by a bond referendum approved by voters last year.

Representing the district, Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said city officials had discussed the three buildings last year at a joint school board-city council study session.

“Demolition of the Unit Four properties was discussed by the City Council, with the consensus being that there was a balancing of interests in play, with the greater good being the expansion of Central High School,” said Fitzgerald.

Unit Four plans to use the Burnham lot as part of expanded parking at Champaign Central High School. The other two buildings would be torn down for a softball and soccer/football fields.

Preservationists say the three buildings — especially the 1884 Burnham mansion — are important parts of Champaign’s history. Besides being home to a notable local banking family, the Burnham mansion is one of the few surviving examples of houses designed by the 19th century Chicago architectural firm of Burnham and Root (the two Burnhams are not related).

The Champaign City Council makes the final decision on the landmark status proposals at its December 5th meeting. If landmark status is denied, Unit Four School Board President Chris Kloeppel says demolition of the three buildings would occur sometime in 2018.