115 North Neil Street - Illinois Building
Updated: May 5, 2018
The Illinois Building #1 Constructed: 1900 (cost $125,000/$3.6 million adj. to 2012) Destroyed by fire: March 15, 1915
Owner: Noel Family
The land that would eventually become the Illinois Building and the Lewis Department store at the southwest corner of Park and Neil Street began as a residential area. Initially most of the commerce was focused on Main Street and not Neil Street. This birdseye from 1869 shows the four houses that encompass the footprint of the building. Over time these homes started to take on more commercial uses such as drug stores and doctors office.
The original Illinois Building was a monumental structure for Downtown Champaign. Wolf Lewis, a polish immigrant, started his store in 1879 and moved Lewis & Co. into the building becoming its primary tenant.
The structure was situated at the southwest corner of Neil and Park Streets.
This view offers a rare look inside the department store.
St. Patrick's Day Fire - March 17, 1915 - 6:00 AM
On the morning of Wednesday, March 17, 1915 (St. Patrick's Day) around 6 o'clock in the morning motorman Chas. Dalenburg discovered a fire had begun in the northwest elevator shaft of the Lewis and Co. Department Store. Within 45 minutes of this discovery, the building, containing over $150,000 ($2.6 million in 2012) worth of merchandise, was reduced to a pile of rubble.
The fire presented impossible challenges for young city and was hampered even more by low water pressure which prohibited a serious effort to stop the blaze.
The fire would spark action to improve this system to match the modern city Champaign was becoming. The fire was, at the time, the worse fire the twin-cities had seen since the 1871 Urbana fire which claimed most of the Downtown area.
This fire would not only claim the Illinois Building but also completely gut the Price/Dallenbach block directly east across Neil Street (buildings were repaired and still remain).
By the time the smoke cleared, the structure was a total loss with only one corner of the building remaining upright.
The Urbana Daily Courier wrote extensively of the major community event.
The event was entensivly covered by other communities, many of who would send assistance.
DECATUR FIRE DEPARTMENT TO ASSISTANCE --
LEWIS AND COMPANY STORE DESTROYED. Champaign, March 17. -- Fire which for a time threatened the entire business district of Champaign was brought under control at 11 o'clock Wednesday morning, after the flames had destroyed property estimated at $400,000 in value. The loss was well covered by insurance. Burned To Ground. The Illinois building, occupied by the WOLFE LEWIS department store, was burned to the ground with a loss estimated to exceed $200,000. The interior of the PRICE block, across the street, was swept by the fire, leaving only the walls standing. The Odd Fellows' temple, a large structure on Neil street, was saved by the firemen after a hard fight.
High winds carried blazing wreckage away from the fire and kept the firemen busy protecting nearby buildings. The Champaign firemen were given efficient aid by the Urbana and Decatur departments. Started In Basement. The fire started at 6:30 o'clock Wednesday morning in the basement of the LEWIS store at the southwest corner of Park and Neil streets. A tank of kerosene was kept near the freight elevator shaft and it is thought that spontaneous combustion might have caused the conflagration. When discovered, the flames were beyond control and the four-story structure was soon a mass of ruins. On the south of the LEWIS store were the Illinois building annex, the FRANK CAMPBELL building and McFADDEN brothers' feed and grocery store. These made but a mouthful for the flames which had begun to assume large proportions.
Leaped Across Neil Street. The fire then leaped across Neil street to the buildings of the PRICE estate. These were mostly two-story structures, containing small business firms, and they were practically wiped out. The flames burned buildings on both sides of Neil street, Chester to Taylor and Park streets. Appeals were made in Bloomington, Decatur and Danville for assistance. Danville refused to send aid, but help was immediately dispatched from Bloomington and Decatur. The Decatur department, headed by Chief C. W. DEVORE, was the first to arrive, and it did some efficient work in helping check the flames. The Bloomington department was notified while on its way to turn back for the flames were then under control.
Firemen Overcome. Practically no one was injured in any way by the fire. Fireman EARL PHIPPS of the local department was overcome in the smoke but he was soon revived. The Daily Review Decatur Illinois 1915-03-17
On March 26, 1915, the News-Gazette ran an announcement that " The W. Lewis Department Store has taken over the entire Witt Building at Walnut and Taylor streets in downtown Champaign as its new home. The store's former headquarters was destroyed in the March 17 downtown Champaign blaze. The new location has "a complete department store stock and everything new from a spool of thread to the finest Whittall rug."
The Illinois Building #2
Constructed Between 1916
The brand new Illinois Building was completed within a year of the fire.
The new structure was built to encompass roughly the same building envelope as the first building. A new grand entrance was created on Neil Street with show windows wrapping the facades along Neil and Park Street.
The building and the store would continue on without much change until the 1960s. A new blade sign was installed that would stretch the height of the building and become a symbol in the stores marketing campaigns where they would "Meet you under the clock".
W. Lewis and Co would close its doors for good in 1977, one year after the opening of Market Place Mall.
Following the closure of the store, the building converted to various office space for rent.
The building is currently owned by Busey Bank and as of 2017 is undergoing major renovation.
Photo Credit: Champaign County Historical Archives at the Urbana Free Library, Champaign County History Museum, and T.J. Blakeman