15 East Main Street - Willis Department Store, JC Penney's, and News-Gazette Headquarters
Updated: Jan 2
If you ask the casual observer how old the current News-Gazette headquarters is, their answer would likely reflect the modern look of the building. However, in actuality, the building has had a long career that stated in the early 20th century as some of the City's leading department stores. Today the building on the northeast corner of Main Street Fremont might look modern but carries a history that stretches back to the earliest days of Champaign.
The earliest map of buildings in Champaign is the 1858 Alexander Bowman Map (seen below).
The original buildings on the north side of Main Street were mostly wood framed with the exception of 1 East Main. Barrett Hall was one of the first brick buildings in Champaign. 15 Main Street is seen below sitting just east of the Garwood Building and west of the Buckingham sign. The large grain elevator is located at the northwest corner of Main and Walnut Street.
Another view of the north side of Main Street (below) shows the muddy conditions of Main Street in the City's early days. By this time limestone and wooden sidewalks lines Main Street to protect pedestrians. 15 Main Street is located just past the "Boots and Shoes" sign in the center of the image.
C.G. Willis Store (1st Store)
Construction Method: Wood
Godfrey Clarence Willis was born on October 23, 1848 in Kent England. He immigrated to the United States and arrived in Philadelphia. In 1872 he left Philadelphia for Champaign and opened his first general store in a small wood frame building at 15 Main Street. He called the new store Willis's Philadelphia Store.
The store is seen below at the northeast corner of Main Street and Fremont Street, just east of the three story brick building with the sign J.B. Sanders.
In 1882, Willis razed the small wood frame building and constructed a new two story, brick structure on the site.
The 1887 Sandborn Fire Insurance Map shows the new Willis Building sitting at 15 Main Street (outlined in red).
This image of a Fourth of July Parade shows the store to the left of the image behind the pocket watch sign.
An enlargement of the photo shows the new store and the name G.C. Willis over the door. The building is draped in patriotic bunting.
The store eventually grew into the the neighboring building at 17 Main Street. The image below circa 1890 shows the newly constructed streetcar tracks for the Urbana and Champaign Electric Railway Company. These tracks eventually expanded over nine miles across both cities and brought customers directly to Willis' front door.
You can see in this image below that the same window shades are used on both 15 and 17 Main Street indicating that the business had expanded.
C.G. Willis Store (2nd Store)
Construction Method: Brick and stone.
In 1913, Mr. Willis razed both 15 and 17 Main Street and started construction on his new department store building. This image from an advertisement depicts the structures design.
Unfortunately, just one year after the new store was complete, G.C. Willis died of a throat ailment after undergoing surgery in Chicago. He was survived by his wife Frances Beasley (married in 1876). Their large estate at 103 North Prospect (now Cheshire Estates at the northwest corner of Prospect and University) had been completed in 1908.
The store passed in ownership to G.C.'s son Harry T. Willis. Harry and his wife moved into the family home on Prospect Avenue.
The new store was built of blond brick and stone. The first floor features large plate glass windows with luxfor prism transoms above. A large projecting canopy jutted over the Main Street sidewalk.
This image below shows the stores scale and proportions along side the other Main Street buildings. Most buildings on the north side of Main were three stories tall and those on the south side of the street were two stories tall.
The Willis windows were large and beautifully appointed. This image shows a collection of toys from the 1930s.
In the 1940s the building continued to stand out as one of the more "modern" structures on the north side of Main Street. However, you can see that by this time "Fields" had already "modernized" their building by adding a medal slip cover to the second floor. This trend continued throughout the 1970s along this block.
In 1956, Harry Willis sold his interest in the Willis Department Store, ending his family's 84 ownership of the company.
The Willis Department store became popular for offering the popular rewards program S&H Green Stamps (the sign hangs on the builing in the photo below). This program started in 1896 by the Sperry & Hutchinson company offered points with each purchase in the form of a green stamp. Those stamps were added to a 24 page booklet and each page contained 50 stamps. These books could be redemed for housewares and other "premiums" at either a participating department store or the companies catalog.
In July 1959, the store prepared to close its doors for good. The images above and below show the crowds gathering outside the doors awaiting the final sales.
Renovated in 1960
In 1960, J.C. Penney's, who owned a Downtown Urbana store, announced they would open a second location at 15 Main Street in Downtown Champaign in 1961.
The new store opened April 6, 1961. Robert Meyers was the new store manager and the department store featured three floors and over 27,000 square feet of retail space. The basement featured housewares, home furnishings, and dry goods. The first floor, managed by Roger Wetzel, included men and boys section along with a full shoe department. The second floor, manged by Donald Waudby, included the women and girls department as well as infants, toddlers, and maternity.
The opening of the store was anything but routine. On that day, a group of African American's residents began a boycott of the store that lasted from April 6th to April 27th. Their grievances stemmed from the hiring practices of the new store.
Shortly after the store announced they were planning to open a new location in Champaign, several local ministers from the recently organized C-U Negro North End Ministers Association, and led by Reverend J.E. Graves of Mt. Olive Baptist Church, began encouraging their parishioners to apply for these coveted sales positions. At the time, the country was in a recession and unemployment, especially skilled labor, was rising in the African-American Community. The table below from a 1959 study conducted by Dr. Bernard Karsh and Kenneth Downey that looked at Merit Employment in Champaign for the Champaign Human Relations Commission and demostrated the low employment by African-Americans.
As noted in the study, of 75 major employers in the City of Champaign, only two African American's were employed as sales workers.
Reverend Graves wrote this April 14th Letter to the Daily Illini outlining the purpose of the boycott.
On April 18, 1961, Harry Tieboat, Associate Professor of Philosphy and campus advisor to the University NAACP wrote "Negros have developed a new local sense of determinaton and never again will take racial discrimination lying down".
On April 27th, Store Manager Robert Meyers anounced an end to the boycott telling the Daily Illini that a mutual agreement between the protesters and the store had been reached. However, the details of that agreement were not disclosed.
JC Penney's continued to serve Champaign from their Downtown store until 1979 when the store announded they were leaving their location for the newly completed Market Place Mall.
Renovated in 1984-1985
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the News-Gazette continued to grow. With a growing circulation and thriving business they looked for a space to replace their cofined office and printing facility at 48-50 Main Street. This had been the papers home since at least 1919 when the paper was still the Champaign Daily News. Under consideration during this time was a new headquarters building at 40 East University Avenue. This new structure would replace the existing brick structures that still exist to this day with a three story modern office building that would have brought the entire block under the News-Gazette control.
However, in 1984, Marajen Stevick Chinigo, publisher of the News-Gazette made the decision instead to purchase the now vacant department store at 15 Main Street for conversion to their new corporate headquarters.
Work began in earnest to remove the former JC Penney's slip cover and transform the building into their new modern office building.
The exterior of the building was clad in red Italian marble and installed by Kirby & Turner Masonry. The building was renamed the Stevick Building by Marajen to honor her late parents and founding family of the paper, David and Helen Stevick.
New mezzanine levels were added throughout the building.
The large grand staircase had to be installed before the installation of the three story glass facade.
The newsroom bullpen featured an open concept with new modern technology. The computer terminals were called coyotes and the device in the foreground printed Associated Press images as they were transmitted to news outlets across the country.
Glass partitions were used throughout the building to bring the flooding sunlight from the south facing glass facade into various parts of the building.
The Publishers Office was specially designed for Mrs. Marajen Stevick Chinigo.
On May 19, 1985, The News-Gazette held an open house to showcase the new towering marble monument to local journalism.
Today, the News-Gazette remains an independent newspaper under the control of News-Gazette Media which is wholly owned by the Marajen Stevick Foundation. The paper continues to produce Champaign County's only daily newspaper.
In addition to the paper, the radio studios for WDWS and WHMS were moved to the building in 2018 from their long time home on South Neil Street. This was a return home to Downtown Champaign for WDWS which is named for David W. Stevick, and aired for the first time on January 24, 1937 from the News-Gazettes former home at 48 East Main Street.