Col. Wolfe School put on the market, faces possible demolition

Local News

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — The University of Illinois (UI) is putting one of its buildings up for sale — worrying some that it will end up as rubble.

The Colonel Wolfe School sits vacant at 403 E. Healey Street. According to a published legal notice, buyers have until Dec. 21 to apply to purchase it with an attached preservation covenant.

It could also be swapped for another piece of property of equal or greater value if it’s within or adjacent to the UI’s master plan boundary, says the notice.

The UI says in March its Board of Trustees declared it as surplus property “with no practical use for the university and authorized campus to proceed with the sale.”

If there are no takers, the U. of I. can tear it down and try to sell the land.

Susan Appel, Vice President of the Preservation and Conservation Association, says the school building holds historical value — it was named after a prominent local Civil War figure, John Simms Wolfe.

Appel says Wolfe helped form two military units in the area that fought for the Union.

“He was a very highly respected local attorney and he went back to that after the war,” she says.

Wolfe died in 1904, and the building received his namesake once it was finished the next year — Appel says it was a sign of respect the community had for him.

The school was designed by the Spencer and Temple architectural firm, she says.

“It’s a significant architectural building,” Appel adds, “a very handsome building, beautifully put together.”

The firm was prominent in the local area, Appel says, and was especially involved in school design — and put together plans for several other schools in town.

“There was, at the turn of the century, a tremendous building boom,” she says. “Because of the increased population, eight new schools were built in 20 years, from 1894 to 1914.

“I know Spencer and Temple built several of those eight schools, including both Colonel Wolfe and Columbia, in 1905,” she says. “They also did the original Dr. Howard School.”

Appel says the UI’s first Black architecture graduate worked for Spencer and Temple and helped designed the Colonel Wolfe School.

“Walter Thomas Bailey is one of the most interesting elements of this whole thing,” she says, adding his work on the school was mentioned in his obituary.
Walter T. Bailey. Photo from the UI College of Fine and Applied Arts. The college adds he was also the first licensed Black architect in Illinois.

“I think it’s fair to say it was important to him,” Appel says. “I think you can easily prove it’s a beginning point for his career.”

His career took him to places like Chicago, Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee, she says.

“In particular, he worked for Black organizations, sometimes churches, sometimes fraternal groups,” Appel says. “Point is, he created a kind of architectural presence for such groups.

“The early 20th Century saw a number of efforts by Black people to improve their communities, companies, and business districts, and there are horror stories about the reactions to that.”

Some of those stories include riots that occurred in Tulsa, Okla., and Springfield, according to Appel.

“He was working with groups that met such resistance,” she says. “It was a period when Black architects were beginning to assert their presence.

“I think he’s worthy of respect and I think it’s fabulous there is this building here that connects so directly correctly with his career.”

Appel says she’s working to get the word out about the building’s sale because “the university has done so little to publicize this building with the short time-frame the proposal has given. It’s quite likely people won’t know it’s for sale.”

She says the time frame usually allowed for bids in such situations is 120 days.”

“In fact, they barely have a month,” she says of the Wolfe building proposal.

“What I’m after is publicizing that this building is for sale and it’s threatened, and it doesn’t deserve just being run through this fast-track to demolition. I hope there are buyers. I think it deserves far-better treatment.”

Appel says that if you look at the area nearby, “you know these buildings are being converted into tall towers, and that site likely has people waiting.”

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