33 East Main Street - Jos. Kuhn & Company
Updated: Jan 23, 2019
Born in Greenstadt Germany on April 14, 1837, Jos. Kuhn arrived in the United States at age 19. He arrived by way of Louisiana where he worked five years buying cotton for his brother-in-law before being drafted into the Confederate army where he participated in several large battles including the battle of Vicksberg. He remained in the army for 13 months before taking an oath of loyalty to the United States. He married Lena Loeb in Louisville Kentucky in 1865 and they moved to West Lafayette Indiana where Joseph rented a store in hopes of opening his own clothing business. Unfortunately, the building burned before he took possession and he departed Indiana for the newly established City of Champaign. He opened his first store, The Emporium that same year.
He purchased the building at 45-47 East Main Street, approximately where Black and Co. is indicated in the image above, to house his new business in 1867, the same year Illinois Industrial University opened its doors.
In 1872, a devastating fire damaged the building and dynamite was used to implode the remainder of the building in an effort to stop it from spreading. Joseph Kuhn rebuilt a new brick building to house his store at the same location (45 Main Street) in 1873 and renamed the business the Star Clothing House.
At the western end of Main Street near Walnut Street (the future location of Jos. Kuhn and Co. sat the Trevett and Green Building. The Champaign Times Building (still standing) is now part of the Jos. Kuhn block.
In 1888, Joseph’s son Isaac joined the business and the store became known as Jos. Kuhn & Son. In 1897, Isaac purchased a half-interest in the store.
The business prospered and in 1907 Joseph and his son Isaac erected the 4-story, 35,000 square-foot building at 33 East Main Street.
The new building was a masterpiece that featured all of the modern conveniences needed for the growing business. The centerpiece of the building was an atrium extending from the first to the fourth floor, topped by a stained glass skylight.
The stores motto was “Unmatched in 118 ½ miles” referencing the distance to nearest major city, Indianapolis at 119 miles and Chicago at 126 miles.
The new store featured modern conveniences including an elevator and electric lighting. Pneumatic tubes allowed for centralized accounting from all floors of the building.
This view of the ground floor shows the original store entrance.
On December 27,1915, Joseph Kuhn died at the age of 78 at his home at 309 East University Avenue. He had spend the day working at the store and his death later that night came shocking surprise. His funeral was held at Mt. Sinai Temple.
Fourteen months after his death, the store continued to receive notes of sympathy and the decision was made to send this letter along with the above photograph to all of their customers.
Issac Kuhn assumed control of the store and Joseph's property holdings in Downtown. Under his leadership the store continued to thrive.
The store was able to capitalize on the growing success of University of Illinois All-American Football player Harold "Red" Grange and other University of Illinois athletes who posed in ads for Kuhn's. Some of the athletes even modeled clothing live in the store windows.
Issac's family grew during this time as well. He and his wife had two daughters, Helen and Ruth.
In 1946, Isaac's sons-in-law, attorney B.B. Wiese and husband of Helen Kuhn Wiese joins the business part time.
The store underwent a number of renovations and expansions. The signage and entrance were altered in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.
On January 21, 1956 Isaac Kuhn died. His son-in-law B.B. Wiese became President of the company and ran the store for the next 25 years. Also in 1956, the store's central "atrium" — that had been open to fourth-floor stained-glass skylight — was closed off, adding more space on each floor.
By 1959, the ground floor had been modernized. Much of the cabinetry remained but flooring and lighting was updated to modern materials and fixtures.
Throughout the 1940's and 50's the store continued to grow, eventually linking four buildings on the north side of Main Street.
In 1958, Kuhn's opens a women's apparel shop on the third floor.
Promotional photos were taken throughout the store including this one on the Main Street balcony.
Keeping with Jos. Kuhn & Co's interest in local spokespeople, the store recruited WCIA weatherman Wyndham Roberts (AKA Mr. Roberts) to pose for this hat advertisement.
In 1976 Jos. Kuhn & Co. opened a branch store, Kuhn's Too, at Market Place Shopping Center. The beautiful stained-glass skylight was installed at that location. That store closed in 1991 and the stain glass was packed away.
In 1981, Dr. William D. Youngerman, son of Ruth Kuhn Youngerman and grandson of Isaac Kuhn, purchased the business from his uncle and aunt, B.B. and Helen Kuhn Wiese. The business and the buildings remain in the Kuhn family to this day.
Today, the store remains on Main Street. The stores footprint has shrunk to occupying only the ground floor but much of the stores interior is the same as it was on opening day. It's beautiful atrium has been closed in and the stained glass packed away but now over 150 years later, Jos. Kuhn & Co. is alive on Main Street.
Photo Credits: Champaign County Historical Archives at the Urbana Free Library, Champaign County History Museum, Dr. William Youngerman, Sholem Family, Kip Pope, and T.J. Blakeman