The Eccentric John Frederic Hessel and His Grand City Plan
This article first appeared in History Matters, the monthly newsletter of the Champaign Count History Museum.
Located just north of Kirby Avenue and west of Neil Street sits Hessel Park, a gathering place enjoyed by families, children, and visitors to our community for the past 100 years. Today the park stands as one of the few remaining pieces of a massively planned neighborhood designed and promoted by an eccentric loan officer and budding City Planner John Frederic "Fred." Hessel. Had his full plans come to fruition, the City of Champaign and the University of Illinois would have been forever transformed. His grand plan, University City, would have been his crowning achievement. Instead, this ambitious plan has now been lost to time, but Fred Hessel's Park remains one of the largest and well know parks in the Champaign community.
The Hessel Family
John Fredrick Hessel was a private man. His parents, Gustavus Edward (later referred to as Edward G.) and Mary (Davian-Dixon) Hessel were among the first to arrive in West Urbana (present-day Champaign) around 1855. Edward was born in Saxony, Germany on October 6, 1836, and Mary was born in Dublin Ireland on April 4, 1841. They immigrated to Champaign County and married on January 27, 1859. There is no concrete evidence of young Fred's birth date because he closely guarded his true age. However, it is likely he was born between 1861 and 1866. Even in the sunset of his life, he never revealed his true age and believed to the end that he would always have time to achieve his dreams. It is known that he attended Illinois Industrial University (later the University of Illinois) from 1876-79 and it was during that time that tragedy struck his family.
On April 28, 1878, three of his siblings (Frank, age 6, Cora Mae, age 10, and Emma H., age 14) all died of Scarlet Fever on the same day. Their triple funeral was noted by many as the saddest funeral the community had ever witnessed. His father, Edward, by then a prominent harness dealer, died just three years later on August 10, 1881, from what many consider a broken heart over the death of his children. This event dramatically impacted Fred. His mother, Mary, remained in mourning the rest of her life. Fred never married but remained devoted to his mother, caring for her and staying by her side until her death on January 27, 1920. Upon her death, he published a book of poems devoted to his mother entitled "Mother of Mine."
Fred's father Edward began to amass the family fortune when he opened a Harness and Carriage shop in Downtown Champaign in 1855. Fred embarked on a trip to Europe following Edward’s death, then returned home to carry on the family business at 37-39 Main Street. A fire on December 23, 1904, devastated a large portion of the north side of Main Street between Walnut and Chestnut Streets including the Hessel Building. Fred built a new Hessel Building on the site of the destroyed business. He soon decided that more money could be made in the real estate business in the growing city of Champaign. Realizing the potential in chattel mortgages and land loans, he opened the J.F. Hessel Land Company, operating out of his newly completed building.
His real estate portfolio quickly grew with goods and land acquired through the default of loans. including houses, lots, farmland, equipment, automobiles, and furnishings.
He was well known as a man that never sold anything he acquired and often filled buildings around town with his items. One of his real estate projects was the construction of the Hessel Airport at the northwest corner of Neil and Kirby. At the time of his death, it was estimated that he had over 100 tons of furniture and machinery, much of it in the Hessel Building on Main Street and even more, including cars, tractors, and furniture filled hangers at Hessel’s Airport. In 1898, he constructed a large, stately, six-unit (30 rooms) apartment building called the Hessel Apartments, just east of the First United Methodist Church at 208 West Church Street (today the site of the church’s daycare addition). This grand structure cost $10,000 to build and had the highest quality craftsmanship and furnishings including gas ranges and steam heat. He and his mother both held rooms in adjacent units for the rest of their lives.
A Boulevard and a Park By 1916, Fred had acquired more than 200 acres of land at the southern border of Champaign, primarily south of William Street. Even as the city’s growth pushed against these tracts, Fred held off developing the land in hopes of undertaking something grander than the haphazard, fast-paced, growth experienced to date. His first step was the design of a new subdivision that he called Highland Place.
This subdivision would include the finest, modern estates centered on a grand boulevard extending from the University of Illinois along with a meandering path to the Champaign County Club. Hessel would also pursue and eventually convince the City of Champaign, University of Illinois, and Illinois Central to push through a rail crossing at Stadium Drive to further connect his new neighborhood to the University of Illinois and the brand-new Memorial Stadium that grew from the farmland just east of the development.
Before a single house had been built in Highland Place, Fred pushed forward with the dedication of Hessel Park. The initial design included some features that failed to come to fruition. The most dramatic was a lagoon that would have been used for recreational boating and fishing. Although it was the largest park in the area, it was outside the city limits. Hessel Park was not officially added to the Champaign Park District inventory until the 1940s.
The Aspiring City Planner
Highland Place was Fred’s first foray in land development. He clearly was developing a real passion for the new practice of city planning and continued to press Champaign government to view it as a model for new growth.
At the dawn of the 20th Century, Champaign and many other cities across the country were growing rapidly. The new concept of City Planning and the City Beautiful movement had exploded across the nation following Chicago Architect Daniel Burnham’s White City at the 1898 Chicago Colombian Exhibition. It was during this time that Fred developed a keen interest in City Planning; studying and formulating his vision for the City of Champaign. His thoughts on the subject are summarized in several books he wrote on the subject including the 300 plus page "The Destiny of the American City."
In that book, published by his own publishing company, he writes in the Explanatory on July 1, 1926 "The City of Champaign is one of much promise with the University of Illinois as its greatest asset and has without a doubt a most wonderful future. So far the municipality has just grown "Topsy like" without much regard given to physical growth and expansion, only needing a proper instrument as a balance or check in order to bring about the ideal civic condition. To the city of the future our best thought and endeavor should now be directed". Further he wrote “This plan embraced everything known in city planning and zoning far in advance of anything ever contemplated for the municipality at that time, with a plea for track elevations and subways, so as to give the development proper University contacts in order that the City of Champaign could grow, abreast with the University of Illinois, in its natural and logical growth and expansion, southward”. This book outlined his thoughts on how Cities (in particular Champaign) was going about growth in the wrong way. He stated in the book “Today we find a belated city planning and zoning ordinance being advocated, assisted by experts from afar, receiving the civic support it justly deserves. It is obvious that either my plan, to which no support has ever been offered, covering all the points of the present day plan was either too far in advance of the time or the City of Champaign too far behind”. The books goal was to lay out his plans for Highland Place and garner further support for such an idea.
University City: His Grand Plan
From his book came his grand vision for the future of Champaign; University City. This planned development was an organized plan for the entire southern end of Champaign between Kirby Avenue south to South Road (today's Windsor Road), Neil Street and Prospect Avenue. The plan called for the creation of essentially a new city that would provide a new home to a growing University population. It is important to remember that at this time, most of what is considered Campustown was a thriving single-family neighborhood and, the University of Illinois was under the leadership of Edmund James and experiencing one of its largest building booms. This was a time before University dorms, with most students living in fraternity or sorority houses, rooming houses, or anywhere they could find a room.
The University City plan called for a well-organized City buffered from the northern (unorganized City) by a great lawn area between Kirby Avenue and Boulevard M or today's St. Mary's Road. South of that would be a radial city centered on a new civic and commercial center featuring a new City Hall, Community Building, and school. To further reinforce the academic focus of the city, the street names were named for Ivy League schools of the east coast.
The End of the Hessel Name
Fred Hessel died at Burnham City Hospital on Wednesday, January 18, 1939. His death marked the end of the local Hessel family. With no children and a massive amount of land, property, and cash, his death sparked years of challenges that played out in the courts. The News-Gazette reported “J.F. Hessel, whom no one understood while he lived has become even stranger in death. When he died, he left more than two tons of paper, but not one of them thus far discovered will dispose of his estate worth upwards of $150,000 ($2.7 million in 2018) without years of litigation”. Two wills were eventually found in the massive collection of documents. One was dated 1903 and another 1926. However, the 1926 version was only a carbon copy of the original with very faint signatures. The will divided $125,000 in land and cash to several local organizations including $50,000 to the Wesleyan Foundation, $10,000 to the construction of a Y.M.C.A building on Hessel Boulevard, $10,000 toward apartment buildings to be built on Hessel Boulevard, $5,0000 toward the erection of the first fraternity on Hessel Boulevard, $10,000 toward the creation of a loan company for the purpose of supporting meritorious students at the University of Illinois, and $30,000 toward public improvements to Hessel Boulevard and Hessel Park. However, the will couldn't be authenticated, and the two closest heirs were Edward Hessel a cousin living in Indiana and Emma Alms, a cousin living in Indiana.
By 1940 two heirs were bitterly divided on the estate. To make matters worse, Edward Hessel was killed in an automobile accident in Indiana in January 1941 before the estate could be settled. Finally, on July 13, 1942, after countless claims, litigation, and payment to the Edward Hessel estate, and several other cousins, the estate was settled, and Mrs. Emma Alms was awarded $300,000.
When Fred died, most of his Highland Place was still vacant lots, Hessel Park was underdeveloped and underfunded, and University City was a lost dream. Had he lived just ten more years, he would have seen the demand for housing explode with the end of the war and the introduction of the GI Bill. Returning veterans flocked to Champaign and set off a tremendous period of rapid development and growth that the City struggled to contain. A well planned, well thought out development would have been just what Champaign in the 1940s and 50s needed. While Fred Hessel's dreams went unfulfilled, his name lives on through his park and his boulevard.