Wednesday, July 2, 2014

117 West Church Street - Russell Building

117 West Church Street - Russell Building (Rialto Theater)
Constructed: 1905
Renovation: 1915 (re-purposed to Theatre Belvoir)
Renovation: 1938 (extensive renovation and restructuring of the theater. Renamed Rialto)

Original Owner:Charlie and Elizabeth Russell
Current Owner: Bill Capel & Ernie Martin




Built as a retail store in 1905 by Charlie and Elizabeth Russell the building was re-purposed in 1915 as the Theatre Belvoir by C.F. Hamilton after his Walker Opera House was torn down to make way for the Hamilton Hotel. The theater was originally a road house; seating somewhere between 850 and 900 with two balconies and a main floor.  The theater saw stage greats Al Jolson, Katherine Cornell, Cornelia Otis Skinner among others perform live.
1887 Sandborn Fire Insurance Map showing the site prior to the Russell Building being constructed.

This 1909 Sandborn Fire Insurance Map shows the building shortly after construction.
 In 1917 Charles C Pyle in partnership with Richard Porter took over the operation of the theater and the name was changed to the Rialto Theater. The Rialto Theater switched from live theater to movies around 1920.
By this 1924 Sandborn Fire Insurance Map, the Store had been converted to the Rialto Theater.

Original Lobby.


By 1921 Pyle had partnered with A.W. Stoolman and Harry McNevin to build the Virginia Theatre at Park and Randolph. The Virginia and Rialto were operated jointly by Pyle and Stoolman until financial difficulties in 1923 when Stoolman filed a lawsuit against Pyle. Pyle lost control of the Rialto and Virginia in 1924 when Stoolman prevailed in the courts.


In 1925 Stoolman decided to not renew his lease for the Rialto space at which time Elizabeth Russell recruited her son Gene to take over the Rialto’s operation. In 1927 Gene Russell installed Movietone and Vitaphone sound equipment and the Rialto introduced Champaign-Urbana to “talkie” motion pictures with the debut of the “Jazz Singer”.


Church Street looking east from Randolph Street February 5, 1936.
This photo is the only photo known to exist showing the original marquee in operation.
Photo Courtesy of the Sholem Family

Gene Russell closed the theater in June of 1938 for extensive renovation. Architect George Ramey (architect of the Champaign City Building) designed the new interior in collaboration with Floyd R. Watson, professor of experimental physics along with air conditioning experts from Chicago. The interior was stripped to bare walls and an entirely new balcony was constructed. Internal bracing was used throughout eliminating sight obstructing support columns. The renovation included a new modern steel and glass marquee and air conditioning.

Champaign Builders Supply delivers concrete to be hand carried into the theater.
Notice the close up detail of the original marquee.  This is likely one of the last
photographs of that marquee before it was replaced.


Seating plan for the original balcony.

Seating plan for the original main level.

Gene Russell, Owner and Operator of the Rialto Theater


Rialto Theater lobby on opening night 1938

Rendering of new Rialto Theatre Marquee
Photo provided by Ernie Martin

The theater reopened on Saturday October 1, 1938 with “Sing You Sinners” starring Bing Crosby.

Opening Night at the new Rialto Theater October 1, 1938

Rialto Theater 1938

Crowds gathering outside the Rialto Theatre to see Dodge City in Technicolor 1939

Crowds line up to see North West Mounted Police 1940

Rialto Theater projection room.

Theater organ located to the left of the screen. Note floral pattern
speaker covers which still exist today.

A 1956 fire in 115 West Church Street claimed the upper floor of the building but
failed to damage the theater.  The second floor of 115 was removed and the ground
floor refurbished.  The building was razed in 2012 to make way for the new
Hyatt Place Hotel.  Photo courtesy of the Champaign Fire Department.
Another view of the 1956 fire at 115 West Church showing the
Russell Building and Robeson Department Store.
Photo courtesy of the Champaign Fire Department

Intersection of Randolph Street and Church Street looking east from
 the Post Office (William Springer Building) 1968
Rialto Marquee with Robeson's Marquee in the background 1970.

Shops located in the front of the Rialto Theater in 1971


Church Street looking east from Randolph Street 1971


Rialto Marquee and storefront 1978


Gene Russell operated the theatre until his death in 1956 at which time his son, John took over and ran the theatre until December 1978. He leased the theatre to Kerasotes from December 1, 1978 until December 1, 1981. After Kerasotes the theatre was the Gospel Lighthouse until the building was eventually sold to Robeson’s in 1986.

The Gospel Lighthouse occupied the building from 1981 to 1986.
Photo Courtesy of Mike Moran


Upper floors of the Russell building had various tenants including Knights of Pythias, a finance company, art studio and an apartment utilized by the Russell family. Robeson’s leased most of the upper floors of the building starting in 1970.


Russell building following sale to the Robeson family.


Russell building following sale to the Robeson family.

Russell building following sale to the Robeson family.


Russell Building in 2007. Photo Courtesy of T.J. Blakeman

In 2008, current owners Bill Capel and Ernie Martin removed the layers of
paint to restore the original brick and limestone.  The process revealed much
of the detail that had been lost.  Photo Courtesy of T.J. Blakeman


Russell Building in 2012.  Photo Courtesy of Google.

Interior of the Rialto Interior Circa 2008
Photo provided by T.J. Blakeman

Interior of the Rialto Interior as seen from the balcony in 2008
Photo provided by T.J. Blakeman

Interior of the Rialto Interior in 2008
Photo provided by T.J. Blakeman

Interior lighting of the Rialto in 2008
Photo provided by T.J. Blakeman


Balcony railing from the Rialto in 2008.  Architect George Ramey used this
same style in the Champaign City Building.
Photo provided by T.J. Blakeman


Today the Russell Building is under the steady care of Bill Capel and Ernie Martin.  Bill operates his photography business out of the space and both continue to maintain the building in good working order.  Many don't realize that behind the somewhat nondescript facade sits the second largest theater in Champaign.  The art deco details are maintained in perfect order, waiting for the right idea to bring the space back to life.  As a quick side note, the 2010 movie Leading Ladies was filed almost entirely in the Rialto.  I've included the trailer so that you can get a quick glimpse inside this beautiful Downtown building. 




Thursday, November 21, 2013

John F. Kennedy Visit October 24, 1960

Senator John F. Kennedy's Visit to Champaign-Urbana
October 24, 1960

I understand that my blog is primarily for the documentation of buildings and physical locations around Champaign however, with the 50th Anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination, I wanted to document his final visit to Champaign on the morning of Monday, October 24, 1960.  The Senator visited Champaign on a Midwestern swing shortly after the fourth and final debate with Vice President Richard Nixon and just 15 days before the election.  Given the razor thin margin of victory in Illinois, you can understand the importance of this trip. His itinerary that day included:

October 24, 1960
Travel by plane to Champaign, Illinois from Milwaukee, WI
Champaign-Urbana, IL - University of Illinois Campus
Moline, IL - New Fieldhouse
Peoria, IL - Courthouse Rally
East Peoria, IL - Street Rally at the Caterpillar Plant
Rock Island, IL
Rockford, IL - Coronado Theater Rally

Senator Kennedy's Convair 240 airplane named "Caroline" touched down at Willard Airport just before 9:00 AM.  The event was viewed by nearly 500 spectators who had gathered to catch a glimpse of the candidate.  On board was his sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Sen. Paul Douglas, Democratic Candidate for Governor Otto Kerner, and Lt. Governor Candidate Samuel Shapiro.  Two additional planes carried reporters and photographers along the campaign swing.

Sen Paul Douglas deplanes at Willard Airport
Photo Courtesy of the Champaign County Archives, Urbana Free Library

Senator Kennedy emerges from his campaign plane "Caroline"
Photo Courtesy of the Champaign County Archives, Urbana Free Library

Sen Kennedy and sister Eunice shake hands on the tarmac at Willard Airport
Photo Courtesy of the Champaign County Archives, Urbana Free Library

Sen Kennedy shakes hands on the tarmac at Willard Airport
Photo Courtesy of the Champaign County Archives, Urbana Free Library

Sen Kennedy's motorcade departs Willard Airport heading for University of Illinois Quad
Photo Courtesy of the Champaign County Archives, Urbana Free Library

Sen Kennedy's motorcade travels north on Neil Street before
turning east onto Green Street.  The car is seen here at the corner of
Neil and William Street, heading northbound.
Photo Courtesy of the Champaign County Archives, Urbana Free Library

Sen Kennedy's motorcade travels east on Green Street
 (Illinois Central Viaduct in the background)
Photo Courtesy of the Champaign County Archives, Urbana Free Library

Sen Kennedy's motorcade travels east on Green Street near the
intersection of Green and Second Street
Photo Courtesy of the Champaign County Archives, Urbana Free Library

Sen Kennedy's motorcade travels south on Wright Street toward the
Auditorium (Foellinger auditorium).  The English Building is seen in the
middle right of the photo
Photo Courtesy of the Champaign County Archives, Urbana Free Library

Sen Kennedy's motorcade travels south on Wright Street in front of
the University YMCA at Wright and Chalmers Streets
Photo Courtesy of the Champaign County Archives, Urbana Free Library

Sen Kennedy's motorcade travels south on Wright Street in front of
the University YMCA before turning into the parking lot for his speech.
Photo Courtesy of the Champaign County Archives, Urbana Free Library

An estimated 10,000 spectators packed the quad to hear Sen. Kennedy speak.
This speech marked the first political speech allowed on University property since the 1870s.
Photo Courtesy of the Champaign County Archives, Urbana Free Library

WCIA Channel 3 was covering the event and their footage is believed to
be the only video of the day.  You can watch their report below.
Photo Courtesy of the Champaign County Archives, Urbana Free Library


Sen. Kennedy addresses the crowd on the University of Illinois Quad.
Photo Courtesy of the Champaign County Archives, Urbana Free Library

Sen. Kennedy addresses the crowd on the University of Illinois Quad.
Photo Courtesy of the Champaign County Archives, Urbana Free Library

Senator John F. Kennedy’s Address
University of Illinois
October 24, 1960

Senator KENNEDY. Otto Kerner, your next Governor of the State of Illinois, my friend and colleague in the Senate of the United States, your distinguished Senator who speaks for Illinois and the Nation, Senator Paul Douglas, Ed Nally, who I hope will be elected the Congressman from this district, ladies and gentlemen, I have been informed that this is a strong Republican center [response from the audience], but if this is the way we turn out in these strong Republican centers, what is happening to Mr. Nixon all over the United States? [Response from the audience; applause.]
This is an important campaign and these are important issues which face our country, and I appreciate your coming here. Prince Bismarck once said that one-third of the students - I guess maybe you better get down there a little - [applause], Prince Bismarck once said that one-third of the students of German universities broke down from overwork, another third broke down from dissipation, and the other third ruled Germany. I do not know which third of the student body of this university is here today, but I am confident I am talking to the rulers of America, in the sense that all educated men and women have the obligation to accept the discipline of self-government.
Mr. Nixon and I campaign for the most important office in the free world, but in my judgment this is more than a contest between Mr. Nixon and myself. It is more than a contest between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. It is a contest between the contented and the concerned, between those who wish to stand still and those who wish to move ahead. [Applause.]
Mr. Nixon runs on a slogan "We've never had it so good." I run on the slogan we are going to have to do much better. [Applause.] A good deal of unfavorable, a good deal of comparison and most of it unfavorable, is drawn between the Lincoln-Douglas debates and Mr. Nixon's and my weekly brief appearances on "What's Our Line" every Friday night. [Laughter.] I am not sure, however, that we realize how different, how numerous, how sophisticated, are the problems which face us as Americans, compared to the single significant crucial problem that faced Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Douglas a century ago.
Now, the next President of the United States and the Senate and the House deal with monetary and fiscal problems that dwarf in significance those that they dealt with a century ago. We deal with the problem of outer space; the problem of how a free society can successfully maintain itself over a long period of time in competition with a totalitarian society which is able to mobilize all of its resources both human and material for the service of the state. I cannot possibly predict what the great issues will be, the new great issues in the next 4 or 5 years, any more than in 1940 - when Wendell Willkie and Franklin Roosevelt ran against each other - anyone could predict that in 1941 and 1942 Franklin Roosevelt would be asked by Albert Einstein and others to support a tremendous expenditure of money in order to break the atom. We cannot predict what new problems will come across our desks in the next 4 years. We could not have predicted in 1952 - when President Eisenhower and Mr. Stevenson debated - that one of the great issues would be our recognition of the significance of space. Where Franklin Roosevelt broke the atom, this administration failed to recognize the changing nature of our times and we now see the Soviet first on the moon, and what is true of outer space is true of every area of national and international government. [Applause.]
I will itemize that charge. One month ago Mr. Nixon said that if we had considered a program of aid to Latin America in 1955, we might not have had a Castro. And why didn't we? Why does the United States today spend one-tenth as much on information programs and radio programs to Latin America as the Soviet Union, one-tenth as much? We are the 14th country of the world in radio programs to Africa today. We brought more students from around the world 10 years ago to study here under Federal auspices than we do today. We had more students offered to the Congo in the month of June for scholarships as a result of the explosion there than we offered to all of Africa the year before. Do you know last year we had more students from Thailand studying here than from Africa, south of the desert, from all of those new countries? More students from one country in Asia than we did from all of Africa. Do you know how many students came from Africa last year, all those countries? 155. We had more people stationed in Western Germany in the Embassy in 1957 than in all of Africa. I make the point because Africa is new, revolutionary. It contains one-fourth of all the members of the General Assembly and this administration has not known that Africa has existed until the Congo blew up in our face.
Do you know the next countries that are going to try to be independent and will be? The Portuguese colonies. Do you know how many students are studying in the United States from the Portuguese to prepare for leadership? None. Guinea asked us for 500 teachers last year. Do you know how many teachers we sent them? One. Guinea got its independence from France 2 years ago. I took us 2 months to recognize that independence. It took us 8 months to send an Ambassador. The Ambassador from the Soviet Union arrived there the day Guinea was independent.
There are six countries in Africa which are members of the United Nations which do not have a single American diplomat in residence in them. We spent less than 5 percent of our development loan fund meant for underdeveloped countries last year in Africa. I could go on and itemize it and the result is that on the admission of Red China not one of the 16 new African countries voted with us. More countries in Asia voted against us than voted with us. We are second in outer space, but this administration has failed to recognize, has failed to recognize that in these changing times, with a revolution of rising expectation sweeping the globe, the United States has lost its image as a new, strong, vital, revolutionary society.
This administration will not release the poll which demonstrates that. What are we going to do, get them released next November or December? They show that our prestige has dropped around the world and prove that the Vice President is wrong when he says it is at an all time high. If Mr. Nixon believes that, if he believes that, he is misinformed. If he does not believe it, he should not run on it. [Applause.]
I run for the Presidency in the most series time in the life of our country and these issues involve the security of everybody here. In the next 10 years, this globe around us is going to move in the direction of freedom or going to move in the direction of slavery. The Communist system is militant, hopeful, confident, optimistic, and it has been able to identify itself all too successfully with the desire of these people in the underdeveloped world to live a better life. We have not done so. Cuba is only a phase of a great struggle which will take place in the next decade. We talk about Mr. Castro. The great issue is what is the rest of Latin America going to do, Mexico, Panama, Bolivia? Why should the President of Brazil in his campaign feel it necessary to make a trip not to Washington but to Havana in order to get Mr. Castro's blessing to be elected President of Brazil. Anyone who sits in this university and looks at the far reaches of the world, looks at the kind of competition which we are now undergoing, recognizes that every phase of our national and international life is being tested, our economic growth, the development of our resources, the science, the technology, and energy of our society. Ten years ago we produced twice as many scientists and engineers as the Russians, today one-half. In the last 9 months the United States had the lowest rate of economic growth almost in its history and the lowest rate of any industrialized society in the world. The question you have to decide is, Is this good enough? Has this administration demonstrated its awareness of the world around us? Has it brought men and women to Washington and sent them around the world, who recognize our changing times? Or have they sent ambassadors who could not speak the language or even pronounce the name of the head of the state to which they were accredited? [Response from the audience.]
We have failed in the Department of Defense with personnel who have averaged less than 18 months in office in this most technical world. I do not think that what was good enough in the administrations of Harding and Coolidge and McKinley is good enough for today. We are being tested as we have never been tested before, and if we fail, we fail not only ourselves, but we fail the cause of freedom.
I come to this university, which is a center of knowledge, which is a center of truth, and you cannot possibly tell me in 1960 that the American people are going to choose to sit still and give power and responsibility to those who in the last 8 years have demonstrated an unawareness of the basic nature of our times. [Applause.]
The kind of society we build here, the kind of country we develop here, that is the test of our ability to lead around the world. What we are speaks far louder than what we say.
I come here today and ask you to join in rebuilding the strength and image of the United States as progressive society. I want the people of the world to wake up in the morning and wonder what the United States is doing, not what Mr. Khrushchev is doing. [Applause.]
One hundred years ago in the campaign of 1860, Lincoln wrote to a friend:
I know there is a God, and I know He hates injustice. I see the storm coming and His hand is in it. But if He has a place and a part for me, I believe that I am ready.
Now, 100 years later, we know there is a God, and we know He hates injustice, and we see the storm coming. We see His hand in it. But if He has a place and a part for us, I believe we are ready. Thank you. [Applause.]Citation: John F. Kennedy: "Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy, University of Illinois Campus, Champaign-Urbana, IL," October 24, 1960. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=74190.


Sen. Kennedy addresses the crowd on the University of Illinois Quad.
Photo Courtesy of the Champaign County Archives, Urbana Free Library

Sen. Kennedy addresses the crowd on the University of Illinois Quad.
Photo Courtesy of the Champaign County Archives, Urbana Free Library

Sen. Kennedy addresses the crowd on the University of Illinois Quad.
Photo Courtesy of the Champaign County Archives, Urbana Free Library

Sen. Kennedy departs the Quad heading west on
Armory Street (UofI Armory on right)
Photo Courtesy of  Time Life




The speech went off with only minor interruptions from a small group of Nixon supporters.  It also appears that the pre-speeches might have struck a chord with some spectators as not befitting the honor of hosting a presidential candidate.  Additionally a few over zealous spectators prevented Sen. Kennedy from departing by blocking the car in the driveway trying to catch a glimpse or receive a handshake.  Two letters to the editor in the next days Daily Illini give insight into the crowds and their behavior.



One additional article from the October 25, 1960 Daily Illini explains the massive crowds of the day.