303 W. University Ave., Urbana
HISTORY AND FEATURES
Leal Park is in a relatively odd location for what you or I might consider to be a park to explore, but that is purely because the City of Urbana truly and actually grew up around it, and for good reason.
This is actually and truly the oldest cemetery around, interring both Native Americans and imperialist European weirdos “settling” the land and being all like “Yo, we’ve got muskets.”
Is that too many adverbs? OK! Am I being insensitive to the plight of the history surrounding our indigenous family? I don’t think so. My thirty year history on writing about the topic should suffice. No I am not linking anything. Google search Seth Fein and Chief and that should do it.
But there’s more to the story here, as the park also houses the oldest known residential house in Champaign County, the Greek Revival Cottage. Built in 1852, and relocated to its current site in 1976, the home was preserved when the Champaign County Historical Society teamed up with the Urbana Park District to move it to the site and turn it into offices for the District. Well done, everyone!
How do I know so much about this? Well none other than Dana Mancuso again, of course!
You can read all about Leal Park and its history right here, and you should, goddamnit! It is totally engaging and interesting. If you are a Christian, and you were offended by the use of that word, let’s talk about the epistles, you and me. We can do that, if you want. Let’s get it going.
Beyond that, there is a fantastic gazebo, an epic bicentennial oak tree that towers over the park (see above), and you know, this is somehow a peaceful respite on one of the busiest intersections in the oldest part of Urbana.
Take that for for whatever it is worth. A couple hours here and you will see what I mean.
I asked the Timothy Bartlett, the Executive Director of Urbana Park District, to tell me more about why the park matters so much to the District, and to him personally. This fella is also a Landscape Architecture wild man, and he wrote me a really compelling email that I want to share with you all right now, so here you go:
I think a significant fact for today is that Leal Park also serves as a critical “node” or “linkage” to downtown Urbana. Many, many people use the park trail to go to and from downtown Urbana and the adjacent neighborhoods; the improved bicycle/pedestrian path connects the Boneyard Commons area and toward CLP and the Carle campus. Carle staff and visitors use the park and path—I’ve talked to people at Leal Park—that are visiting or working at Carle; the path is a good “cut through” to getting downtown quickly and without driving if you are on foot or bike. One neighbor said she walks to the Urbana Free Library every day and uses the park path to get there and back. She said it was much harder with the old, narrow sidewalk; now the 8 foot bicycle/pedestrian trail makes it easy and enjoyable
The park use has increased over the years—people seek out the park for the majestic trees—like the Bicentennial Oak in the park; the new Culver’s attracts folks picnicking/lunch/dinner time. Gone are the adjacent houses that used to be located on Lake Street—now removed. Leal is very close to CLP. This close adjacency allows folks to now park at Leal when going over to CLP—especially for special events like Turkey Trot and other major events in the park. Improved access along University Ave now make it easier and safer to cross the busy street…. In the end, the park has transformed from a non-visible park site to a busy urban park.
A more recent attraction is the enclosed gazebo in the park; the new gates and window coverings have been crafted by a local metal artist to help protect the gazebo from overnight use, graffiti and/or other negative activities that used to go on in the gazebo. The surrounding garden is a staff tribute garden to commemorate the passing of UPD staff and/or their immediate families. The on-going care and upkeep of this garden has provided great comfort to many staff that have lost loved ones…there is a small stone at the site to commemorate the loss of family.
The Cottage has been lovingly restored and upgraded over the years the UPD has been using the building as an office. The original restoration is noted on our website information. Staff also conducted a multi-phase restoration over a few years (around 2013-2015) to replace the roof, downspouts, gutters, clapboard siding, painting on the exterior and other improvements; a second phase replaced the porch, entry plaza, kitchen, and major renovations to the basement to support staff offices; one big problem was the lower level flooding. We were able to redesign the lower level ramp to eliminate the flooding in the basement; we added new flooring, HVAC improvements, storage options, furnishings and finishes. The end result is a much more modern, usable office for today’s business needs. This will help preserve this historic treasure at the UPD for many years to come.
Lastly, the parking lot on the north side has been enlarged; the University Avenue corridor improvement project coincided with our parking improvements. The UPD ceded about 8-10 feet of park land on the north side for the expansion of University Ave. The expanded parking lot added more accessible and regular parking spaces. District use for meetings and staff needs have increased; the improved lot is easier to access, provides more parking and has T-shaped parking elements to allow for better backing up/exiting of cars. The improved access is also better for larger delivery trucks, snow plows and other park maintenance vehicles that need to access the park for tree care and other maintenance activities. We have noticed some folks park in the park and visit adjacent stores and offices; it provides a good location to walk to other locations; it is near the Five-Points development so there are a lot of retail options in this general area.