Memory Lane: Urbanization

Aerial photograph of the corner of Sixth and Green Street where longstanding buildings are being demolished to make room for a new 17-story, high-rise apartment tower. (Image by Darrell Hoemann)
Construction of high-rise apartment towers is altering the face of Campustown

They found a house on Green Street once. Developers were demolishing buildings for a new high-rise when the wrecking ball revealed a century-old, two-and-half–story, wood-framed house that, over the years, had been surrounded by apartments and retailers and virtually forgotten. 

The newspaper wrote stories about it. In another time, the house at 5091/2 E. Green might not have been so noteworthy. But this was 2013, and developers were building high-rises unlike anything Campustown had ever seen. As 18- and 24-story behemoths went up, the house was a reminder of more quaint times when homes with yards and fences lined Green Street alongside confectionaries and cobblers.

If the sentimental response to the house altered any building plans, it was hard to see last fall as developers cleared ground for yet another high-rise on Green Street. By 2020, a new 17-story apartment building will be located at the southeast quadrant of Sixth and Green—a spot bound to strike a chord with Illini who are familiar with what used to be there. 

Coeds participating in a popularity contest stand in front of Prehn’s, a confectionary owned by Illini wrestling coach Paul Prehn. The store frequently displayed posters of romantic campus scenes and “spicy gossip.” (Image courtesy of UIAA Archives)

That corner was most recently occupied by Hometown Pantry, but from the early 1920s to the early 1940s, it was the site of Prehn’s, a popular confectionary owned by Illinois wrestling coach Paul Prehn. The front window was regularly adorned with posters depicting romantic campus scenes and “spicy gossip,” according to the Champaign County History Museum. Later, the busy corner became the site of McBride’s Drugstore. 

Around the corner on Sixth Street—which has also been cleared—sat the Sam Lee Laundry, owned by the family of George Chin, a Chinese immigrant. In 1964, he converted the spot into the House of Chin. The restaurant became a favorite in Campustown, and in 1994, Chin boasted to The News-Gazette that his establishment had the “best damn Chinese food in Champaign.”

Also demolished were The Clybourne and Firehaus, a pair of longstanding campus bars. According to The Daily Illini, the Firehaus was originally called Round Robin in the early 1960s. It also was once known as the Wigwam, a distinctive place rumored to have inspired Bob Dylan’s 1969 song “Wigwam.” A story in Smile Politely, Champaign-Urbana’s independent online magazine, cites unconfirmed reports of the iconic songwriter hanging out at the bar—a rumor given credence by the fact that Dylan co-wrote two songs called “Champaign, Illinois.” The bar later became R&R Sports Grill before being relaunched as Firehaus in the early 2000s. 

The demolition of the area has prompted many to ask, “What’s happening to the character of Green Street?” (Image courtesy of UIAA Archives)

Also affected by new construction is the former site of Korn ’n’ Kandy, run for years by the late Marietta and Gene Kirkwood. Nearby was Campus Shoe Repair, founded by Joe Buttitta, who emigrated from Italy in 1905. His children expanded the business, and it was eventually renamed Campus Sportswear, a name it bore until 2018, when it was renamed Campus Ink. The business relocated because of the high-rise and a need for more space.

Change has always been afoot in Campustown, but the clearing of land at Sixth and Green has struck a nerve. Numerous news stories and online comments ask: “What’s happening to the character of Green Street?”

It’s worth noting that the house uncovered in 2013 is still standing. Instead of being ripped down, it was renovated and it’s now one of Bankier Apartments’ more popular rentals. The reason? Apparently some students still like Green Street the way it used to be.