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Busey’s Hall  --  Princess Theatre  -- Cinema Theatre

120 West Main, Urbana, Illinois

The Beginnings

Back in the days when Busey’s Block was built (1870), large substantial buildings were commonly referred to as “blocks.”  If the construction was of brick, it might be called a brick block.  Brick construction played a major role in saving Busey’s Block from Urbana’s disastrous Great Fire of October 1871, the same day as the Great Chicago Fire. Thirty buildings were lost in downtown Urbana.(1)

Busey brothers Samuel T. and Simeon H. had opened a bank on Urbana’s Main Street on 13 January 1868.  The bank prospered and soon outgrew its space.(2)

The Champaign County Gazette noted in their 30 March 1870 edition that the Busey Brothers had purchased, for $3,000, the old Champaign House(3) where Abraham Lincoln had frequently stayed when attending court in Urbana.  A Mr. McHugh got the contract to move the Champaign House from Main Street to the lot to the north.(4)

The Champaign County Gazette reported on 6 April 1870 that moving the old hotel had begun.  They also reported that Mr. Eubeling, Mr. Burt, and others would also be putting up business buildings on Main Street that summer.(5)  Mr. Burt, in partnership with Mr. Gill, built adjacent to the east, in the same style, so that it appeared to be part of the Busey Block.  At some point in the next few years, Burt and Gill sold to General Black.  Mr. Eubeling’s building was the next east across the alley.

The Buseys purchased an additional twelve feet of land adjoining the old Champaign House property, for $75 per foot, providing additional space for store rooms.  The Buseys were putting in two store fronts and Mr. Burt putting in one.  The Gazette stated: “We are glad to learn that the third story of this building is to be finished off for a town hall, an institution which Urbana has long needed.”(6)

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The Champaign House.

Courtesy of the Champaign County Historical Archives in the Urbana Free Library.

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Busey's Block and the Gill & Burt building from an 1873 map.

The Champaign County Gazette declared in the 10 November 1870 edition that “the new brick block just completed by Messrs. Busey Brothers and Gill & Burt is one of the finest buildings in the county.”  It had a street frontage of 70 feet, a depth of 80 feet, and it stood three stories high.  Busey Brothers’ bank; J. Bing, clothier; and Hatfield, Mitchel & Co., dry goods and flour dealers occupied the three business rooms on the first floor.  The Gazette Job Printing Office was the only second floor occupant when the building opened.  Busey’s Hall was located in the western two-thirds of the third story.  The Gazette called it “a good room for public purposes, large enough to seat four hundred people.”  The Gazette bindery occupied the remainder.  Tobias’ dining room and Goodspeed’s billiard hall occupied two nice basement rooms.(7)

The following week, the Gazette described its job printing office and book bindery, located in the second and third stories of Gill & Burt’s portion of the building.  “…We have every facility for doing the very best printing, binding and blank book manufacturing.  Our presses are run by steam, thereby enabling us to do work with great rapidity and at low rates.”(8)

Busey’s Hall was one of Urbana’s two early opera houses along with Tiernan’s Hall across Main Street.  Busey’s Hall, typical of the genre, was located upstairs and was used for a wide variety of activities.  It held dances, socials, dinners, singers, lectures, and theatre troupes.  Every opera house in existence must have had at least one Uncle Tom’s Cabin troupe perform.  During one period when roller-skating was popular, Busey’s Hall was used as a skating rink.

Until Tiernan's Hall closed (it was sold to the Masons) it was the venue for the more theatrical events.  Busey's Hall, with its flat floor, was ideal for dances,  dinners, and other social activities. 


Two short stories in the Champaign County Gazette in January 1872 described the scenery in Busey’s Hall.  Following a common practice in opera halls of the time, the main drop-curtain, 12 by 18 feet, would be divided into several “business cards,” 3 feet by 2 feet six inches, that would “be painted in a tasteful manner with appropriate designs.  Advertisements will be good for 15 years and read by hundreds of persons every time the hall is occupied.”(1)

The scenic drops were soon completed and the Gazette praised artist J.G. Reynolds work.  “For artistic finish and beauty, these paintings are not surpassed in halls and theaters of much greater pretensions.  Mr. Reynolds stands high in his profession and we do not hesitate to recommend him as a first-class scene painter.”(2)

Neither article gave details on the number of drops or their subjects.  It was standard practice to have at least a few basic drops that could be used if an attraction did not carry their own.  The number of drops varied from hall to hall, but the minimum would typically be a basic interior and an exterior.   Additional drops might portray various rooms or exteriors such as a wooded area, gardens, or the front of a house.  Busey's Hall ceiling height necessitated the use of a roll-drop.

A paragraph in the 20 March 1872 edition of the Champaign County Gazette again mentions scenic artist J.G. Reynolds.  This time he is re-painting the scenery in Barrett Hall in Champaign.  He would be painting several new scenes and an elegant drop-curtain.  “… his labors will greatly improve the appearance of the hall.”(3)

Busey's Block Fire and Rebirth

Busey’s Block and General J.C. Black’s building immediately east were destroyed by fire on Wednesday 10 April 1878.  The brick block, a survivor of Urbana’s great fire of 1871, did not fare as well when the fire began inside the building.  The origin was thought to be a defective flue that ignited interior woodwork near the roof.  About 10:30 smoke was discovered coming from the windows and crevices in the cornice.(1) 

The Urbana Fire Department responded quickly, but their Babcock chemical engine and bucket company were not effective in quenching the flames.  Fire at the top of a three-story building, out of the equipment’s range, was practically impossible to extinguish.(2)

The Champaign department was called in, but the fire had such a head start that their steamer couldn’t make much headway.  “Arriving at Urbana two streams were quickly turned on Busey’s building, which was by this time on fire in the interior.  The aqueous fluid was poured into the building but without avail.  The red-lipped fiend had seized upon the pine lumber of which the interior was constructed, and filled the spaces between partitions, floors and ceilings, and nothing short of an inundation could, at that stage, have smothered it.”(3

The brick fire wall between the Busey and Black buildings helped protect General Black’s building, but the strong wind blew sparks and cinders which set the roof on fire then spread throughout Black’s building.(4)

The fire wall fell, pushing down the east wall of Black’s building, which in turn fell across the alley, knocking down most of the west wall of Fred Eubeling’s building.  His stock of boots and shoes had been removed early on, mitigating his loss.  The Champaign fire department worked two or three hours keeping the cinders from taking hold in Eubeling’s store.(5)

Busey’s Block was a total loss.  Occupants included Busey Brothers bank on the west side of the ground floor while the east side had been vacated the prior week by J.C. Sheldon & Company drug store.  Somers & Wright law office was on the second floor over the bank and Dr. Birney’s office along with the law offices of L.C. Gordon and M.B. Thompson were on the east side.  Busey’s hall was on the third floor.(6)

The adjacent building, belonging to General J.C. Black, was likewise a total loss.  Mr. Ahrens’ saloon was on the first floor and F.M. Snyder’s Urbana Republican newspaper was on the second.(7)

The Champaign County Herald reported on Wednesday 24 April 1878, that the Busey Brothers would rebuild.  It was not yet decided how many stories the new building would have. (8)  The following week, the Champaign County Gazette reported that the Buseys had purchased the lot where General Black’s building had stood and would build on the footprint of both burned buildings, extending Busey’s Block east to the alley.  A new public hall would be on the second floor along with offices.  The hall would measure 45 by 80 feet and contain a stage and dressing rooms.(9)

Work progressed rapidly.  The Gazette reported in the 10 July edition that workmen had reached the second story(10) and then in the 24 July edition that the roof would soon go on. (11)  It further reported that the pavement would be lowered to match the level to the east.(12)  The following week it was announced that J.T. Rea had the contract to paint the new Busey Block.(13)  A large, gilt, block letter sign proclaiming “Busey’s Hall” had been installed on the front of the building by 7 August.(14)  A small delay occurred at the end of August when a fire destroyed the Kaucher & Tobias carpenter shop and the adjoining livery stable.  The carpenter shop contained workmen’s tools and trim work scheduled to be installed in Busey’s block.(15)

The Champaign County Gazette reported in the 18 September 1878 edition that Somers & Wright and Dr. Birney had moved into their new office in the Busey block.  It was described as “the finest office in town.”(16)  William Kurtzway had opened his saloon in one of the elegant rooms.  “There was free beer, a crowded room and a big time.”(17)

The grand opening of the new Busey’s Hall was scheduled for Thursday evening, 26 September 1878. (18)  George R. Wendling had been engaged to deliver his famous reply to Col. Bob Ingersoll’s famous lecture.  A special streetcar would leave Champaign at 7:30 and will return after the lecture.(19)

Robert Green "Bob" Ingersoll was an American writer and orator who campaigned in defense of agnosticism. He was nicknamed "The Great Agnostic".(20)  George R. Wendling’s lecture was entitled “Ingersollism : from a secular point of view.”  It was first delivered in Association Hall, New York.  He subsequently delivered it more than 600 times throughout the country.(21)

Busey’s Hall was comfortably filled on the occasion of its formal opening on Thursday, 26 September.  Champaign County Gazette  reported that “the strictest attention was paid to the speaker.  We have not space to give a synopsis of the lecture, which gave evidence of great study and extended reading.  Mr. Wendling’s style is pleasing, and as a rhetorical effort the lecture has rarely, or never been excelled, at least not here.  The speaker sometimes fell into the common fault of speaking too fast, when his enunciation became indistinct.  The lecture was one to please all who thought the same as did the lecturer, and gave to such unbounded satisfaction.  As we have never heard the lecture to which this is a reply, we can not judge of the reasoning and arguments as well as we might had we an opportunity for comparison.”(22)

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Ad from Champaign County

Herald.  2 March 1881

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Ad from Champaign County

Herald.  29 March 1882.

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Ad from Champaign Daily

Gazette, Monday, 9 March 1885.

After Busey's Hall

In 1898 W. I. Saffell & Company took over the entire building.  Saffell’s was a department store that sold bicycles, carpets and linoleum, furniture, baby buggies, stoves and ranges, kitchen accessories, hardware, and more.  Saffell’s moved out in 1903 and Gus Freeman remodeled the building turning the top floor into a dance hall.

Gus Freeman began work in August 1914 to convert two of the three ground floor storefronts into the Princess Theatre at an estimated cost of $10,000.  The First State Trust & Savings bank and Quirk’s cigar and billiard room were the last tenants of the storefronts.  The new theatre was variously described as "one of the prettiest photo-play houses in Illinois," palatial, and magnificent.

The front of the Princess Theatre, at ground floor height, was decorated with white enameled brick and columns.  The entrance was in the center, with small storefronts on either side. A large steel canopy covering the front of the theatre was added.  It had not arrived in time for the opening, so was installed later.  The name of the theatre was inlaid in the mosaic tile of the lobby floor near the entrance and can still be seen today.

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The Princess Theatre opened the afternoon of Monday, January 25, 1915.

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Gus Freeman from an Elks Lodge program from 1910 in the collection of the Champaign County History Museum.

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Princess Theatre from 1919.

Photo from the Sholem Collection in the Champaign

County History Museum.

The Princess was extensively remodeled in 1934 by new owners, the Alger Brothers.  They spent $12,000 on the remodeling that changed the style of the building from Italianate to Art Deco.  Some of the Italianate windows can be seen from the alley to the east of the building.  A new facade of buff enameled brick and black chevrons was installed covering the front windows of the opera house. 

The same familiar metal Art Deco style marquee we still see today was installed.  It was always painted in black and white and highlighted with pink neon tubing.  The name Princess was in the center, flanked by horizontal lines of neon.  Over the years, only the names on the marquee have been changed.

The interior changes included adding two rest rooms and a spacious lounge.  The seating capacity was increased by 150 to 700 accomplished by the elimination of one of the aisles and the removal of the stage.  When the theatre reopened the feature was Fog Over Frisco  starring Bette Davis.

Harold Alger managed the Brothers’ local theatres (Park, Albro, and Co-Ed) from offices in the Princess building.  E. E. Alger managed the company's other theatres from their main office in LaSalle, Illinois.

Kerasotes Theaters came to Urbana-Champaign in October 1958 with their purchase of some Alger owned theatres, including the Princess.  In 1967 Kerasotes gave the Princess Theatre a new name: the Cinema Theatre.

In 1985 George Kerasotes Corporation converted the adjoining storefront (formerly McClellan Electric) into a second auditorium seating 230 people.  The old auditorium was given cosmetic changes including a suspended ceiling and a decorative acoustical material on the walls.  The 1930s wall lights were retained.  The lobby was made much more spacious by the removal of the tiny storefronts.  An entrance to the new auditorium was created, and some of the space was used for an office and new, lobby-level, restrooms.

GKC closed the Cinema Theatres on Thursday, 10 November 1994.  The last films shown were Ed Wood at 8:00 and Red Rock West at 8:15.

In 1995 Norman and Carolyn Baxley bought the building and remodeled the second auditorium back into a storefront first housing Reuben’s Chocolates and then Mirabelle Fine Pastries.  The theatre lobby was redone as a coffee shop called the Cinema Caffe.  The coffee shop later closed and Carolyn Baxley now runs an art gallery, Cinema Gallery, in the space.  The auditorium space was turned into open offices with an entrance off Goose Alley. The old opera house space which had been largely unused during the Kerasotes years was cleaned, painted, and HVAC ductwork for the theatre below was removed. It was left as a huge open room and used first as a martial arts studio and now as a dance studio.

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