201 North Neil Street - Walker Opera House/Hamilton Hotel
Walker Opera House Constructed: abt. 1887 Razed: abt 1917 (Razed)
The Walker Opera House was Champaign's first grand theaters constructed solely for stage performances. Until this time, performances would often take place in the upper floors of buildings. Most notable at this time were Barrett Hall at 1 Main Street and the Eichburg Opera House at 22 East Main Street.
The Walker, when constructed, would have been one of the most impressive buildings in the entire city. However, records recount a less than comfortable interior. As you see by the maps below, it appears that the building was initially the Armory and horse stables.
That use was short lived as the 1897 Sandborn Maps clearly mark the building as an opera house, complete with balconies.
Stories tell of the oppressive heat inside the building over the summer months and more than a few rodents gracing the premise. However, I am sure this was overlooked considering what a treat it must have been to have a performance center of this size in the community.
While no photographs are known to exist from inside the theater, we are lucky to have these seating plans that were published in an advertisement. You can note that the shape of the balcony mimics that of the Sandborn Insurance Map above.
The City would continue to grow around the Opera house and the building would finally be razed around 1917.
Records are not not clear on when and why the building was razed but we know the lot was vacant at the time of the massive Lewis Department Store just south of the building. You can see in this image the vacant lot between the ruins of the Lewis Department Store and the Woolworth to the extreme right edge of the photo.
Hamilton Hotel Constructed: 1917 Razed: Partially (top 2 floors) 1977
The lot wouldn't remain vacant for long. Sometime just after 1917 the Hamilton Hotel was constructed on this site. The photo below from the 1920's shows a rebuilt Lewis Department Store and the new hotel.
The hotel was a bit unlucky when it came to fires. This was the first of two that struck the building.
The building lacked much of the grandiose of the Walker but feature some stonework around the first floor lintel and a detailed cornice.
Below, one can see the lobby entrance to the Hamilton Hotel off of Park Street. This image is from Park Street looking east toward Neil Street.
This is a view of the hotel looking west down Taylor Street. The area is today closed to traffic and is typically called the Taylor Street Plaza.
In the 1960s walls were moved in the ground floor commercial space the consolidated to create room for a new Walgreens Drugs. Eventually the Walgreens would push north into the former Woolworth space as well.
This view shows Park Street and the Hamilton in the 1970s. Note the entrance to the Hotel was on the western end of the building.
By 1976, Neil Street was closed to vehicles and this pavillion structure erected across the intersection of Taylor and Neil Streets. The mall would be moved in 1986.
Fire struck the building again on July 22, 1977 and this time the fire proved to be fatal to the hotel. Following the fire, the upper two floors of the building were removed, leaving only the ground floor commercial space.
After the upper floors were removed, the building was eventually converted to office space where Chicago Title Company occupied the building for an extended period.
In 2016, the building underwent extensive renovations removing the false facade and bringing back the window penetrations and some of the old hotel details.
On October 2016, Hamilton Walkers Steak and Seafood Restaurant opened. The name is a nod to its predecessors the Walker Opera House and the Hamilton Hotel.
Photo Credits: Champaign County Historical Archives at the Urbana Free Library, Champaign County History Museum, Jim Greenfield, and T.J. Blakeman