Tales From the Nitrate Negatives: Home Sweet (Presidential) Home

For this week’s Tales from the Nitrate Negatives, we wanted to try something a bit different from usual. Instead of focusing on a single historical event documented through nitrates, we’re tracing the evolution of a house. More specifically, we follow the history of the houses of the presidents of the University of Illinois as captured in Bernard Strauch’s nitrate films. It’s been an expectedly tricky process to track down a couple house from over a century ago, especially if half houses were torn down in the mid 1900s. It is no walk in the park strolling through 18th and 19th century city housing directories so detailed that they  person’s race,  marriage status, and even their job. Thanks to a century and a half of Champaign-Urbana growth, what was 905 East Green Street back in 1890 could be halfway through the 1400 block of West Green Street in 2022. With directories, photographs, and even presidential biographies, we got hot on the case hunting down homes. At one point, we even tracked down Regent Gregory’s library card to see if he had an alternate address we needed to track down. This project, ostensibly a small history stemming from Strauch’s pictures of one presidential home turned into a dive into Champaign-Urbana lore. Through more than 150 years and 19 presidents of the University of Illinois, we present Home Sweet (Presidential) Home.

Gregory’s Champaign Home

Our history starts back in the late 1860’s when John Milton Gregory first came to Champaign, Illinois from Kalamazoo, Michigan as part of his quest to help build the young Illinois Industrial University. Gregory, appointed as the first Regent by the board of trustees, paid for the construction of his home at, then, 709 South 4th Street, Champaign Illinois. It was a quaint, two-story, brick house with a patio lightly extended into the front lawn and ivy growing up the columns. Some things don’t really change do they? By the University’s first year, Gregory was a notable figure in the Champaign-Urbana community! Regent Gregory lived in this home all 13 years of his presidency, and for a year after his retirement before he returned home to New York. The property of Gregory’s house was purchased by the Alpha Delta Pi fraternity in 1912, and then razed for the construction of the University’s first Alpha Delta Pi chapter house.

Following Gregory’s tenure, Regent Selim Hobart Peabody was appointed to the presidency by the Illinois Board of Trustees. Before his presidential term, Peabody was a professor at the University. In his early days of teaching, Peabody was reluctant to fully commit to Champaign and leave his family’s Chicago home behind. In a biography of Regent Peabody written by his daughter, she notes that he was invited by Regent Gregory to live with him for a few months before he full decided to establish a residency. Arguably, we could call Gregory’s home on 4th street the first “President’s House” handed down between presidents because two university presidents technically both occupied it. After committing to Illinois and fully transitioning his family to Champaign, Peabody moved into a home at 709 Mt. Hope Avenue. This house remained the President’s home during his tenure at the university. Unfortunately, neither the building nor Mount Hope Avenue exists today. Mount Hope Avenue was renamed Pennsylvania Avenue in the mid 20th century, and Peabody’s home was razed in the 1940’s to make room for the rapidly expanding University of Illinois.

Wright Street shot of the President’s Green Streeet house in the winter

Continuing the pattern formed by the first two regents, Peabody’s successor, Thomas Jonathan Burrill, simply transformed his home from his time as a professor to become the President’s house. Located at was once 1007 West Green Street, Burrill’s home occupied the land between where the Hendrick House Residence and the University Astronomy Building currently reside. Not much could be traced about this house beyond the fact that the 1898 housing directory notes that Burrill lived there for almost 5 years after his term as president ended before it disappeared from public record.

Front Photo of the President’s Green Street residence

Beginning with Andrew Sloan Draper’s Presidency, we see the first true rotating home of the president. His home was a well-kept house offset a stone’s throw north of the Green and Wright Street intersection. This nice estate nestled up against the Boneyard Creek was located at 905 W. Greet Street, and would now reside at 1410 West Green. It was purchased for the Draper by the University as a official President’s home for his time here. Beyond building a legacy of expansion and a connecting the University to the peaks of American industry, Draper built the historical legacy of a presidential manor handed off when he was succeeded by President Edmund Janes James in 1904. President James occupied the same Green Street residence bringing with him small expansions like a nice greenhouse out back and a drastically reworked landscape job around the property. The University finally started the dream of having a single president’s house that could be passed on through generations. Though it’s a simple gesture now, at the time having an official President’s house added a sense of prestige and community to the University.

David Kinley and John Pershing pose for Strauch’s camera outside Kinley’s home

Unfortunately, that dream of a generations-long house did not last. Following James’s Tenure, President David Kinley opted for a more conservative choice, preferring to stay in his Urbana home from his time as a professor. David Kinley’s home, a nice 2 story building just off Nevada street is still standing to this day. Located at 1203 W Nevada St in Urbana, Illinois, his home was purchased by the University of Illinois after his departure. It was eventually given and was given to the La Casa Cultural Latina, the latino/a cultural house in 1974.

President David Kinley retired in 1930 before Harry Woodburn Chase was appointed to the presidency. Chase returned to the former presidential manor off Green Street for a bit under a year before moving to the permanent presidential home. Consequently, the former president’s home off Green Street was appropriated by the university as a temporary student health center in the mid 1920’s. It also served as a student organization home after the student YMCA relocated its services from University Hall. They occupied that location for half a year before moving to their current Wright Street location. President Chase was the first to occupy the new, and current, president’s house on Florida Avenue. Chase’s time as President during the Great Depression forced him to deal with a tight economy, and an even tighter university budget following the stock market crash of 1929. With his limited funding, he continued the completion pre-depression Board of Trustees project to construct a new and continuous president’s house in 1930 for a cost of $225,000 ($4.2 million today).

Strauch’s Photo of the President’s house days before its completion

The 14,000 square-foot Georgian revival style building. was designed by the campus’ supervising architect James M. White, and Charles Platt of the Holabird and Roche architectural company. Holabird and Roche had designed a majority of the new buildings on campus of that era, and the president’s house was set to match the standard. James moved into the residence, located at 711 W Florida Ave, Urbana, and it’s remained the university standard for over 90 years. From President Chase to David Dodds Henry, from Stanley Ikenberry to Timothy Killeen, the home of the president has remained constant to this day.

 

Tales From The Nitrate Negatives: Pyromaniacs in the Pews?!

90 years ago this year, Champaign-Urbana was allegedly on the brink of collapse from the threat of communist arsonists roaming Central Illinois. Churches were burned to the ground, schools were armed with guards, and sheriffs were on high alert. Smoke and fear wafted through the air placing anyone in the twin cities in danger’s path. That’s at least the story that the media tried spinning for everyone. Images captured by Bernard Strauch the morning after the University Place Church Fire uncovered a story of two red scares– flames and commies alike –in March 1932.

Monday March 7th, 1932, the Urbana Daily Courier broke the story “University Place Church Burns” describing a massive blaze that had engulfed the University Place Church on the corner of Springfield Avenue and South Wright Street. The news report tells a harrowing tale of the building’s caretaker Walter Garland, and his wife who lived in the basement apartment of the church. After catching the smell of smoke late Saturday night, both rushed from the building and barely escaped as a fireball swallowed the building and collapsed the roof in. Fire departments arrived immediately to put out the blaze, but it was too late. The building had been completely destroyed in a matter of minutes, so they took to watering down the exteriors of adjacent buildings to prevent a spread of damage.  Early reports Sunday morning listed the damages at $100,000, but by Wednesday the estimates were upwards of $150,000.

The Champaign News-Gazette quoted the fire-chief on the matter, and the facts seemed relatively cut-and-dry: An aging boiler had started leaking and helped ignite the furnace and the resulting explosion started the fire. Everyone should be on alert to avoid leaving exposed flames near their boilers because it was a serious risk. However, the Champaign-Urbana newspapers didn’t find the story the police reports gave to be that simple. On one side, the news reported a revitalization of unity within the community. Students and community members rallied behind Reverend Fisher and found new spaces for the congregation to gather. There was even a reported increase in religious service attendance in the following months. A June 1932 article notes that the church had fully rebuilt its parishioner index card list larger than it ever had been. A March 12th Daily Illini article reports that university classes on religion were quickly relocated to the University High auditorium, and student prayer was held in Smith Hall at 10:30 AM on Sundays. However, on the other side of the matter was a skeptical media that amplified the voices that inspired panic and quieted the voices of those trying to calm the public down.

On a report from the confidant of a friend of the postmaster (Urbana’s local anti-communist leader), The News-Gazette reported there were two supposed communist “incendiarists” that had been ravaging Central Illinois for weeks. So, pretty much “a friend of a friend” assured him there were commies on the loose. The Urbana Daily Courier and The Daily Illini ran almost daily stories about updates from fires in nearby Bloomington and Lincoln Illinois. Their stories had started to feed into one another creating an almost feedback loop of anxiety over the matter. By chance, the third ransom note in the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping case had been published the same day as the fire, so the newspaper oozed conspiracy and crimes all over the incendiarist worries.

University Place Church C.A. 1920’s, pre-fire

The powder keg of public worry blew when the mayor announced a ‘shoot to kill order’  following a tip from the Urbana Postmaster John Gray. He had, on his authority, “shown” that the communists were involved in this alleged scheme. John Gray, just one day before the fire, issued a report that communists were not threatening Champaign-Urbana. Organized labor was “against communism because the wages they now receive are enough that they can afford the luxuries of life that would be unavailable under a communistic [sic] system”.  48 hours later, an “informant” reported to John Gray that two communists fled the scene of the church fire. In response, the city placed armed guards inside all public schools in the area. Despite all the chaos, the University’s supervising architect, James White, refused to post guards in university buildings. He denied any communist conspiracy and trusted a March 13th report that each fire was an accident.

It was not until Tuesday March 22nd that state-deputy-fire-marshal [sic]  Thomas Abrams declared that each fire from Bloomington to Champaign was “not of incendiary nature” and were each a product of a “likely overheated boiler”. The story of the two arsonists faded into nothingness overnight! Strauch’s images of the church at University Place along with images before its destruction are displayed in this post. We still face the same issues of mass panic, media frenzies on inaccurate information, and fear of terrorism. It’s interesting how just a few snapshots of one church can reveal so much about how history doesn’t just repeat, but it tends to rhyme

Tales From The Nitrate Negatives

Cellulose Nitrate film was first invented in 1887, patented in 1889, and hit the public market in 1902. With it came a paradigm shift in the realm of publicly accessible cinematography. Nitrate film was flexible, light, and could be strung together in long rolls allowing for multiple photos to be taken in a row. It required fewer solvents and film preparation techniques than glass plate film and could be prepared in a fraction of the time. By lowering the entry point to casual photography, this invention brought forward waves of new photographers ready to capture their world on film. With them came a wider variety of subjects matters to be photographed

Military Day Parade of 1937

By the turn of the century, cellulose nitrate films were practically the bread and butter of the Eastman Kodak corporation; they were industrially mass-produced, and this newly efficient system of film production brought filmography to the masses. In the first third of the 20th century, it really seemed as if nitrates were the future of photography!

However, nitrate film did come with one insignificant, teeny tiny, itsy bitsy, almost imperceptible downside: it sometimes explodes.  Specifically its image content deteriorated quickly, and deteriorated nitrate film was prone to spontaneously combust and explode. The only effective way to prevent these explosions, like what happened to the 1937 Fox Vault, is to freeze the nitrate film at sub-zero temperatures. Most storage facilities for nitrate film, like that of the Chicago History Museum, are massive freezers that keep nitrate film meant prevent instant combustion.

Members of the class of 1890,1891,and 1892 gather with family in 1921 for the 30th anniversary.

The Chicago History Museum alone has reportedly 35,000 films on site and thus the protection of those films before they are digitized is essential. At the University of Illinois Archives–with our lack of space for a multi-million-dollar refrigeration unit–have opted to have our nitrate films digitized before their potential explosion dates. We are left today with thousands of photos in pure digital form, and we feel committed to giving them a name and a retelling story that the physical films once held.

Five-Star General William ‘Blackjack’ Pershing stands outside University President David Kinley’ home with Kinley.

The Nitrate Digitization Project, as we’ve come to call it, is part passion project and part dedication to the history contained here at the University Archives. So many of these films are from members of the community whose legacy is stored in thousands of JP_2 files online. Namely, over 500 of the files digitized were by just one guy! A Champaign-Urbana resident and photographer, Bernard Strauch documented so many early images of buildings on campus that exist today. Some of the images in the project were orchestrated and planned out. Strauch often took class reunion photos for some of the earliest graduating classes.

Image that features the degradation of nitrate film that can occur

Where Strauch’s work truly shines is in his series of on-the-ground photos that capture a moment and were wholly unprompted.  Whether it’s rushing to be on scene to see a derailed train just a day after the news broke, photographing all angles of a burned down church at what appears to be 6 in the morning, or even snagging photos of WWI general visiting campus, Strauch always made his mark with his images. So, we are seeking to do justice to Strauch’s work, and all those captured within the nitrate files, by reconstructing and retelling the stories captured almost a century ago. So, we hope to post bi-weekly ‘Tales from the Nitrate Negatives” as we can and work to dissect a world of the past both very alike, yet very alien from our own.