City of Champaign to recognize 63 Chester Street’s historical contributions to city
After Chester Street Bar partially collapsed in 2021, former DJ Leslie Krause said they wanted to find a way to honor its legacy.
Located at 63 Chester St. in Champaign, the bar was a gay nightclub in the community that was open from 1978 until 2017. Originally, it was known as The Bar, but after a change in ownership in 1983, it was named Chester Street Bar.
Krause worked at the bar for about 10 years. They said it served an essential need in Champaign-Urbana – one that offered a space for underrepresented communities to meet one another.
“I feel that the bar was obviously really important because it afforded a safe space during an era when you know, being openly LGBTQ was still highly stigmatized, not just locally, but even nationwide,” they said. “I mean since the bar opened as a gay nightclub in the ‘70s.”
After the bar collapsed in 2021, Krause wrote a letter to the Champaign City Council asking to honor the site. The city responded by beginning the creation of a program to recognize the historical contributions that 63 Chester Street – and other nominated locations like it – made in the city.
Krause said the bar’s closing and subsequent collapse were a devastating blow to the LGBTQ community.
“It was one of the central places where people could come, and it provided an outlet for people to be able to meet others like them,” they said. “(It) was a huge, tremendous loss for so many different people.”
At a Jan. 24 Champaign City Council meeting, Administrative Services Manager Kris Koester said it wasn’t the first time the council had talked about honoring the spot where the bar once stood.
“In August, we discussed a specific historical memorial designation for 63 Chester, which had several businesses through it over its lifetime that were determined to have significant impact on the city's culture and history,” he said.
Koester said the historical designation program will be similar to its Honorary Street Name program that’s been in place since 2000.
The street name program allows residents to nominate certain “individuals, organizations, entities, and events that have made significant contributions to the community.”
The historical designation program will require people to deliver nominations to the Historic Preservation Commission for input before sending them to the city council. Unlike the honorary street name designations, the historical designation program will have no expiration date.
Koester said the commission is currently working on renaming the program, which is still in the process of being formalized into a city ordinance.
“Council have requested that we make that designation – that honorary memorial designation – as well as to bring back a program that would allow for others to request, should they choose, locations to receive this historical memorial designation in the future,” he said. “... And today we're bringing back the creation of the program.”
Doug Barnes was a DJ at Chester Street for about a year before he moved to Houston, Texas, in 1984. He returned to Champaign-Urbana in 2013.
The bar was a safe space for people to come no matter their background, Barnes said.
“Everybody just was a big happy family,” Barnes said. “And there was never any trouble. You just walk in the door, and you have a good time.”
As a DJ, Barnes said he was in control of the bar’s atmosphere, which he described as a big dance club.
“Everybody had a smile on their face, everybody was getting along, dancin’,” he said. “They danced up on the speakers, they danced up in the rafters, they danced everywhere.”
The bar’s closing was a blow to the community, Barnes said.
“Because, you know, it was still our place to go to,” he said. “And when he (the owner) sold it, we were like, ‘Oh, now what are we gonna do?’ And nothing else developed after that.”
C-Street’s closing marked the end of the gay bar scene in Champaign-Urbana, he said. Times have changed, Barnes said, which has prevented the opening of another club.
“Now, we have the internet and, you know, people can meet there,” he said. “I've heard that there's, like, there's still little parties here and there. But people I don't know, it's just different. Like, I don't know how to actually describe it. But it's just a different time now. “
This year marks the 45th anniversary of C-Street’s opening. Barnes said he’s proud to have been part of the club during its run in Champaign-Urbana.
“I've met a lot of people throughout my life and career,” he said. “And a lot of people I’m still best friends with, like, you just really don't have friendships that last this long that don't mean something to you.”
He said he can still remember being in the bar.
“I could still close my eyes and visualize looking at the dance floor or looking at the side room or – the drag shows we had were incredible,” he said. “It was just, it was just fun. I hate to keep saying that over and over. But you know, you just had to have been there.”