17 E. University Avenue - Inman Hotel
Updated: Dec 17, 2020
17 East University Avenue
Owner: George L. Inman
Architect: Nelson Strong Spencer & Temple
Builders: English Bros.
At 8:00 PM on Thursday, March 11, 1915, the celebration began. One-hundred and thirty-seven guests filled the grand ballroom and enjoyed the music of the Wilson Parks Orchestra. The guests toasted George Inman of Urbana and celebrated the finest hotel ever constructed in the twin cities. Each guest that night paid $3 per person to dine on turtle soup, fish, anchovy butter, julienne potatoes, sweetbreads, turkey with dressing, dessert, punch, and coffee prepared by the new head chef hired from Boston. It was reported that at least another 100 were turned away for lack of room, and earlier that day, an estimated 2,000-3,000 citizens toured the magnificent hotel. This grand "fireproof" hotel had finally arrived and put Champaign on the map.
The original 1855 plat of West Urbana (now Champaign) shows our subject parcel at 17 University Avenue as Lot 11 located at the southeast corner of Walnut and 1st South Street (Chester Street).
However, shortly after the original plat was recorded, a new road, University Avenue, was platted, splitting lot 11 into two smaller parcels. The original town plat was created by the Illinois Central Railroad and therefore the streets ran perpendicular to the main railroad in order for crossings to be at 90-degree angles. However, the addition of an east/west running University Avenue sliced through those original lots creating irregularly shaped lots that eventually gave us the unique design of several iconic buildings such as the Champaign City Building and the Inman Hotel.
The lot at the southeast corner of University Avenue and Walnut Street likely developed for the first time in the late 1860s. For about 30 years, the site's wood-frame building served as a livery stable for boarding horses. In 1887, the Strickard Livery occupied the site.
Around 1897, the livery was acquired by P.J. Murphy.
The two views of Walnut Street (below), looking north from 2nd South Street (today Logan Street), show a line of United States Postal Service mail carriages lined up outside the "Farmers Feed Barn." The wooden barn just north of this livery is the future site of the Inman Hotel.
These views are likely taken around 1900. Note the road changes from mud to brick.
The Neil/Walnut "Y"
In the early years of the 20th century, the area in southeast Downtown was predominantly industrial, with liveries, stables, and factories sprinkled throughout. At that time, Walnut Street didn't yet connect with Neil Street in the current "Y' configuration.
Siting in the way of that connection was the "Old Burke Barn" This brick and wood barn sat at the southern terminus of Walnut Street. Just after the Inman opened in September 1916, the barn was razed to make way for a grand new moving picture theater. T.D. Wilson purchased the barn to erect the theater, but once the barn was removed, local businessmen further north on Walnut realized the opportunity to make the important connection and bring more traffic into the eastern half of Downtown Champaign. Among them was Issac Kuhn of Jos. Kuhn and Co., Newton Harris of the First National Bank, and the new hotel builder, George Inman.
They petitioned the Board of Local Improvement to purchase the land and make the street connection. After much contentious discussion, the City Council voted in September 1916 to recommend Walnut Street's extension to connect with Neil Street at a new Y Intersection. Unfortunately, this action canceled the plans for the grand new theater steps away from the hotel.
Introducing George L. Inman
George Inman was born in Wattsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1867. He arrived in Urbana sometime around the late 1880s and married Minnie Swearingen of St. Joeseph on August 16, 1891. However, Minne died just eight years later at the age of 29. A year later, he married Nora Tramle of Pekin on May 13, 1900. They resided at 603 West Main Street, Urbana. George had been involved primarily in the real estate and loan business including working for the eccentric Fred Hessel. In 1903 George purchased the livery stable at the southeast corner of University and Walnut Street in Downtown Champaign.
Plans for the Inman Hotel Begin
On March 10, 1914, Geroge Inman formally announced plans to construct a new hotel.
The hotel site was located at the southeast corner of University Avenue and Walnut Street. This would place the hotel directly across the street from the Champaign City Building and next door to the newly completed Illinois Traction Station (1913). This handsome station, designed by Urbana Architect Joseph Royer, and just east of the hotel site was the company headquarters for William B. McKinley's regional electric rail system that stretched from Champaign to Danville, Decatur, Bloomington, Peoria, Springfield, and St. Louis and all small towns in between. Being located next to this station and just across the street from the Illinois Central Railroad station placed the hotel in the center of Champaign life.
Geroge Inman hired local architects Nelson, Strong, Spencer, and Temple to design his new hotel. Champaign was in the midst of a building boom, and the firm designed several notable buildings at the same time as the Inman Hotel, including Champaign High School at the corner of Green and State Streets. Some of their other notable work was Kenny Gym (1902), and Noyes Lab (1902).
The $75,000 contract to construct the Inman Hotel was awarded to local contractor English Brothers in May 1914.
Founded in 1902 by bothers Richard and Edward English, English Brothers has constructed some of the most iconic structures in Champaign, including Memorial Stadium (1923)
By June, the Champaign Daily Gazette reported that foundation work was underway.
Construction and Furnishings
The five floors of the Inman were constructed with poured concrete. This gave the hotel its "fireproof" status. The Champaign Gazette stated the hotel was so safe that "it couldn't burn if all the furnishings were soaked in oil and ignited." The hotel formed a "C" shape allowing all rooms, both interior and exterior, access to outside light and air. One of the newest features was the innovative hot air heating system or "atmospheric system."
The hotel featured a central vacuum system and an elevator large enough to accommodate 15 people at one time. Separating the lobby from the dining room were large ornate glass doors.
The hotel featured $30,000 in fine furnishings. Mr. Inman used several local furniture dealers with Percival and Morehead (102 S. Neil) securing the bulk of the contract. Walker & Mullikin (Neil and Church Street) furnished window blinds, W. Lewis & Co. (115 North Neil) furnished the draperies, and the electrical fixtures were purchased from Ideal Electrical Company.
On the evening of March 11, 1915, George Inman's grand hotel was ready. J. H. Hays of Chicago was hired as the new hotel manager, bringing twenty years of hotel experience. J. C. Taylor was hired as the night clerk. Additionally, two porters, five bellhops, and five chambermaids comprised the hotel staff.
The new hotel opened with 120 guest rooms, a grand lobby, dining room, cafe and billiard parlor, barbershop, a Turkish bath, and shoe shining parlor. Tucker & Bongart's was given a lease for the drug store space in the northwest storefront. Mr. Inman also built a suite for him and his wife on the second floor.
The original floorplans for the building generally followed the layout below.
Addition Quickly Planned
The success of the Inman Hotel was evident from the start, and plans were quickly being prepared for an addition. By July 1916, the preliminary work began for a sixth-floor to be added to the hotel.
The addition was unlike the rest of the building. This floor was constructed of timber framing and built directly over the existing roof.
This construction method is evident in the exterior of the building. The large spacing between the 5th floor and the 6th floor is due to the original roof structure. The photo below is the only known photo of the sixth-floor construction.
Once the sixth floor was complete, the total guest room count grew to 154. This made it the largest hotel in Champaign, besting the 125 rooms at the Beardsley Hotel. A large electric sign was placed atop the hotel declaring the "INMAN HOTEL FIREPROOF."
George Inman's Death
Just over two years after the hotel opened, George Inman passed away on April 5, 1917, at age 50 in Kramer, Indiana. It was noted that he had suffered poor health in the months preceding his death. Upon his death, the hotel ownership passed to G.W. Byers and August Danielson.
Just two months and two days later, on June 7, 1917, George's wife, Norah Tramble Inman, passed away following gallstone surgery at Burnham Hospital. She was 56 years old.
Notable Highlights from the Inman
May 18, 1919 - Brutus Ortega, known as the "Human Fly," scaled the hotel's exterior in one of three local performances. He also performed at the Champaign County Courthouse and the Masonic Temple in Urbana.
March 19, 1922 - Jeanette Rankin, the first female congresswoman in United States history, spoke at the Inman.
1924 - The City of Champaign prohibited parking in the large triangular space north of the hotel in the middle of University Avenue, Chester Street, and Walnut Street.
The area had become very congested due to the rising number of guests arriving by automobile and the lack of parking for the hotel. The area was also the epicenter of the Urbana and Champaign Electric Street Railway cars and large Illinois Traction Interurban cars that moved around the square as they pulled in and out of the Illinois Traction station.
1941 - The City of Champaign Board of Local Improvements approved a $14,000 plan to construct a new 85-foot long triangular curbed space in the middle of University and Chester Streets to formalize a small parkspace named Stampofski Park. This haphazard parking area was described by residents as "hells half acre."
1947 - Two new fire escapes were installed along with new smoke screens in the existing stairwells.
1958 - A new 50' television transmitter tower was placed on the Inman roof for Plains Television Company of Springfield. English Brothers again handled the installation of the tower. Adding the 50-foot tower to the Inman Hotel gave the building an overall height of 145 feet. This allowed a signal for WCHU/WICS Channel 33 UHF to transmit 15 miles.
1960 - Senator John F. Kennedy's campaign reserved and then canceled 100 reservations anticipating a visit by the Senator. Senator Kennedy visited the community on October 24, 1960, but stayed only several hours instead of overnighting at the Inman. He gave a speech on the University Auditorium steps and proceeded by open air motorcade to and from Willard Airport.
1961 to 1963 - At some point during these years, notable conductors and big band leaders Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey lived at the Inman Hotel for several weeks.
1966 - Hotel's restaurant and banquet center closes
Other notables to guests at the Inman
Nat King Cole
Notre Dame Hall of Fame Football Coach Knute Rockne
Numerous Illinois Governors
Al Capone (rumor is that he rented the entire second floor)
The Decline of the Inman Hotel
By the late 1960s, the hotel began to fall into disrepair. More and more customers flocked to newer motels located along the new interstate highway system and away from the "old" hotels of downtown. The Beardsley Hotel (later Tilden Hall) had already closed and been razed in 1967. The new Howard Johnson opened on State Street, overlooking West Side Park, and offered more modern rooms along with their famous restaurant. A March 14, 1973 article in the Daily Illini headlined "Old Local Hotels Face Bleak Future." The article explained how Downtown's grand hotels had lost their luster. It stated, "the Inman's marble halls and chandeliers were torn out and replaced with mahogany paneling and modern light fixtures a few years ago, in an effort to modernize. The former barbershops serve as basement storage. The Crystal Room Bar remains as the only extra."
Television Finds a Home at the Inman
Over the final years, the hotel's size began to shrink in size, and its floors were leased to other users. In 1965, the newly created WCHU leased an entire floor of the Inman. In July 1967, WCHU was merged with WICD and began using the Inman Hotel as their first television studio. WICD remained at the Inman until 1978, when their new studio was completed on Country Fair Drive in west Champaign.
The Inman closed its doors on Monday, June 17, 1974, and quickly went up for sale. However, there were no buyers, and in May 1975, a City inspection led to nearly $50,000 in needed repairs to bring the building up to code. Articles at the time indicated it was possible the building would be razed without a buyer to invest in the needed repairs.
National Academy of the Arts
Shortly after the articles surfaced about code violations, the National Academy of Arts announced they had reached a deal to purchase the Inman Hotel. Articles reported the building was sold for "substantially less" than the $200,000 asking price. The initial plans were for the building to serve as a leased space to support the Academy and not as a dormitory for the students enrolled in the new program.
The National Academy of Arts began as the National Academy of Dance. It was a residential conservatory of dance and music that originated in 1972 by University of Illinois English Professor Dr. Gilbert Wright. In the initial year, nearly 250 students auditioned from major cities across the nation. The academy peeked in 1977, and after brief closures over the next decade, the academy closed for good in 1987.
At Home at the Inman
After the Academy of the Arts closed, the building transitioned to a senior living facility in 1991. Victor Horowitz acquired the property in 1998, and maintained 90 guest rooms as senior apartments.
Unfortunately, by the mid-2000s, the Inman has lost much of its original charm, and the rooms were run down and not fully accessible for the aging residents.
In 2010 Brickyard Bank acquired the property through foreclosure and the new owners began a massive $5 million renovation of the entire building.
The renovation removed all of the upper floor's interior partition walls and rebuilt floors two through six. Additionally, great care was taken to restore the first floor to its original beauty.
The project was completed in 2011, and the property was reopened as Inman Place, an Independent Senior Living property.
Through ups and downs, the Inman Hotel remains the last of the grand Downtown hotel buildings in Champaign.
Over the years, it has continued to adapt to changing times and continues to stand as a tribute to its namesake, George Inman.