Armory

North-West corner of Neil and Park Streets, Champaign, Illinois

Opened June 1885
Closed July 1889 (and became the Walker Opera House) 

The Champaign Armory Company

The Champaign Daily Gazette reported in the Friday, 16 November 1883 edition that a new enterprise, The Champaign Armory company was incorporated with the Secretary of State on 15 November.  The capital listed was $7,500.  The incorporators were listed as James C. Miller, John W. Haines, and Albert C. Wilcox.  Their object was to form a stock company and erect a building in Champaign that would “contain a hall which may be used for an armory for the military company, as well as for public meetings and other purposes”.  The Gazette went on to state that a large public hall was needed in Champaign and they had no doubt that the stock-holders would realize a handsome return on their investment. 1

Then on 21 November, the Gazette reported that in addition to the previously stated purposes of a hall for entertainments, meetings and a drill-hall for Company D, that additional uses had been suggested.  Those included an opera-house on the ground floor, with city council rooms, police headquarters, library and art rooms above. The Gazette went on to state that a multi-use hall at street level would be very desirable and suitable library rooms were greatly needed. 2

It was reported in March 1884 that a committee was actively soliciting subscriptions for the capital stock, and about $3,000 had been taken. 3

The Champaign Daily Gazette published an update of the armory project in the Saturday, 3 May 1884 edition.  The Champaign Armory company was proposing “to erect a building 66 by 132 feet, two stories and basement; the first floor to be used for an armory for company D, and to be rented for general use such as concerts, lectures, etc.  The company proposes to lease the second floor to the city for ten years, with the privilege of 20 years, to be used for city offices, library and art gallery; also, to lease half of the basement to the city for engine-house, and the front half of the basement to be made into three rooms and rented for business purposes.” 4

The Gazette went on to calculate possible income: the business “rooms could be rented for $10 or $12 per month each, and we understand company D is ready to lease the armory, or first floor, at $900 per year; and, with what the city could afford to pay for the second floor and part of the basement – say about $700 per year – will make something near $2,000 a year income, which will, after paying taxes and insurance, leave ten percent on the investment.  The estimated cost for lots and building is $15,000.” 5

The Gazette was a big booster of the Armory Project mentioning in multiple articles how good an investment it would be.  “The stock would be a good security for persons having money to invest.  There has been considerable talk at different times of having an art gallery in Champaign; also, of having a building where all city offices and the fire department could have quarters; and now seems to be the time for parties interested in such things to come to the front and take the balance of stock in the armory company and make a success of the new enterprise.” 6

Several days later, the Gazette reported “the firemen want the city to rent the basement of the proposed armory building for their department.  Their present quarters are entirely inadequate.  The hose carts cannot be brought out till the engine leaves the building, and to reach the hook and ladder apparatus the men must run the wagon out of doors, or climb in a hole at the rear of the shed.” 7

They went on to report that the stock sales were slow and again encouraged citizens to subscribe noting “the investment will pay a fair interest, and will be a valuable and lasting improvement for the city.” 8

The Champaign Armory company stockholders held a meeting in the city council room on Saturday evening, May 24.  The list of stockholders was read, and two hundred of the three hundred shares was represented at the meeting.  J.W. Langley was chosen chairman, and A.C. Wilcox secretary.  It was decided that there would be seven directors serving one-year terms.  The following were elected directors: F.T. Walker, C.E. Hollister, J.W. Haines, Col. Edward Snyder, H.J. Dunlap, I.S. Mahan, and A.C. Wilcox. 9

Immediately afterward, the directors met and elected temporary officers: J.W. Haines, chairman and A.C. Wilcox, secretary.  They set the next meeting for 26 May to be held at the office of Frank Wilcox & Co. with the agenda to include election of permanent officers and other business.  10

Construction

The Armory Company sold at auction Monday, 23 June 1884, the two frame buildings on their lots at the corner of Neil and Park streets, the site of the new armory building.  The Mohan building sold for $287 and the Blum building for $195.  Excavation work was set to begin later in the week so the buildings were to be removed at once. 11

 

Stone and brick work on the new armory was in progress according to the Champaign Daily Gazette on 17 September 1884.  Preparations were underway for the corner stone laying ceremony to be held the last of the week.  It was to be placed on the north east corner at the foundation.  A cavity was prepared to hold a time capsule.  The public was invited to meet with I.S. Mahan, superintendent, if they wished to offer items such as historic documents or coins for inclusion in the capsule. 12

 

Construction progress was occasionally noted in the LOCAL BREVITIES column of The Champaign Daily Gazette.  On 5 November 1884, it noted that the tin roof was being installed on the building. 13  And then on 12 February 1885, it noted: “Work on the interior of the new armory building is being pushed forward with vigor, notwithstanding the cold weather.” 14

The New Hall Opens

The Champaign Daily Gazette noted on 16 May 1885: “During the past year the new armory has been brought to completion, and now stands prepared to open wide its doors, not only to company D, but also to desirable entertainments.  The permanent home of company D, it has been planned with all the conveniences suitable for a military organization, while upon the ground floor a deep stage renders it possible to convert the drill hall into a capacious auditorium.

The Promenade Concert and Exhibition Drill

Company D put on the first event held in the new armory on Monday evening, 18 May, 1885, a free promenade concert and exhibition drill. 2  The evening began with Company D’s exhibition drill at 7:30. 3  About 8 o'clock the 9th Regiment band, arrived at the hall after a trip around the park and played additional numbers.  The president of the company, in accepting possession of the new hall, spoke briefly to the audience, stating that the cost of the hall now stood at about $20,000, but the company still needed about $450 to purchase scenery and other necessities. 4

Total capacity of the Armory was 1,500.  The opening drew an audience of over one thousand people.  The Gazette reported that over 550 people were counted sitting and standing in the dress circle, and over three hundred on the main floor, which had been left mostly free of chairs making room for the military exercises.  There were also two hundred occupying the seats on the stage, which would be used by the chorus in the upcoming May Festival. 5

There had been rumors circulating around the city for several weeks that the building had been twice condemned and was unsafe.  Part of the Gazette’s report of the evening included: “About 100 people stood on the opposite side of the street, during the evening, waiting for the building to fall, and went away very much disgruntled because their predictions failed to realize.” 6

The Gazette went on to estimate that a capacity crowd of 1,500 fully grown people would have a total weight of about 105 tons.  The building was calculated to sustain a load of 420 tons, or about 6,000 people; close to the population of Champaign at the time.  The Gazette stated: “even were all the inhabitants of the city crowded into the building, which, of course, it would be impossible to do, it is even then doubtful whether the foundations would settle enough to be observed.” 7

Next morning, the managers were pleased to see that not only was the building still standing, there was no sign that the ground had not pulled away from the foundations nor were there any cracks appearing on the ceiling or elsewhere. 8

A seat auction was held immediately after the drill on Monday night, in order to raise money for stage equipment.  The highest bidder for each seating section was given the first choice of seats for the upcoming concert, the Children’s May Festival, the first formal event in the Armory. 9  The Gazette stated on 19 May 1885: “The sale of choice for seats was a disappointment to the company, as but few of our citizens were present to bid; many of them thinking that it was an ordinary auction and that the seats should be bought as cheaply as possible, stayed away, instead of opening their heats and giving out of their generosity a few dollars to assist the company in fitting up the building.” 10

Proceeds from the seat auction and the profits of the Children’s May Festival, after paying expenses, would be used to purchase scenery and furniture for the new hall. 11

Children's May Festival

Scenery

According to a story on 11 July 1885 in The Champaign Daily Gazette, the stage scenery for the new Armory Hall was rapidly being put in place.  Apparatus for shifting scenes, raising the curtain, and presenting fine stage effects, were all state-of-the-art. 1

A few days later, on Tuesday, 14 July 1885, the Gazette reported that the new scenery produced by scenic artists Graham & Davis, of Chicago and Kansas City, had been completed and turned over to the directors of the Armory Monday night.  The installation was handled by Mr. C.L. Hagan, representative of Graham & Davis. 2.

Most opera halls in this time period had their own set of standard scenery that productions would use.  That didn’t preclude road shows bringing in their own though.

Here’s the description of the scenery from the Gazette: “The drop curtain represents a scene in Venice, a palace, canal and boats.  It is a fine piece of work, and looks like an immense picture in a frame.  Among the scenes is a street, elegantly painted and with a fine perspective; a drawing room; a bed room; a jail; a forest and a beautiful garden.  In addition to these are several set pieces, such as stones, rocks, a cottage, etc.  3

The Theatrical Events

The First Theatrical Performance

CDG_07081885we_pg01_Armory ad_Grand opening Kennedy Comedy Co_edited.jpg
Ad for the first theatrical event: Kennedy Comedy Company on July 16,17, and 18, 1885.
The Champaign Daily Gazette, 8 July 1885.

A Selection of Later Performances 

CDG_12171887sa_Armory Opera House_Human Nature_edited.jpg
CDG_08241887we_pg01_Armory Opera House ad_Miss Agnes Herndon_edited.jpg
CDG_12051887mo_pg01_Armory Opera House_Charles Dickens_edited.jpg
CDG_03211887mo_pg01_Armory ad_JW Riley_edited.jpg
It became a popular venue for theatrical and musical activities was converted into the Walker Opera House within a few years.

A story on page 1 of The Champaign Daily Gazette of Wednesday 5 August, 1885, describes another business that was housed in the armory building.

 An Immense Establishment

"Mr. George W. Davidson has leased the ground floor of the new Armory building, and is having it fitted up in elegant style for his business.  A neat office has been arranged in the southeast corner, and a commodious salesroom in the northeast corner, in which will be displayed an elegant line of harness, whips, robes, etc. The main room, which is 60x120 feet in size, will be occupied as a carriage repository, in which at least 150 carriages, buggies and spring wagons can be displayed.  The rear part of the floor has been divided off and will be devoted to the use of a stock exchange, where horses will be bought, sold and exchanged.  Indeed, a person may buy a full outfit, carriage, horses and harness, in Mr. Davidson’s establishment.  A plate-glass front will be put in today.  The floor of the carriage repository is being laid with pure white cement, and every convenience is being arranged.  Mr. Davidson will remove his stock to his new quarters on Friday, when he will be glad to see his many friends and customers."

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