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Act fast: Historic school for sale

The former Col. Wolfe School, located at 4th and Healey in Champaign, is for sale by the University of Illinois, but only until December 21st. Preservation and Conservation Association (PACA) is publicizing the building’s availability to encourage awareness among preservation-minded buyers who could adapt it to good use and save this important historic structure.  

Owned by U of I since the 1960s, the 1905 school was remodeled inside and used for programs for children with special needs and gifted young children until the 1980s; it has stood empty for some time. Deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places by the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), the handsome building’s exterior remains in good condition, if missing its west entrance porch. The University considers it surplus property but has been required by the SHPO to market it, with a preservation covenant. If no acceptable offer is submitted by December 21st, the University will be able to demolish it. That would be yet another unnecessary loss of historic local architecture.

Architectural Significance

This building is striking architecturally, and worth preserving for that reason alone. Two stories high above a tall basement, it has walls of variegated brown brick, brightened with yellow brick horizontal bands and patterns and limestone ornament. Its plan is symmetrical, wider east-west, and, rather than focusing only on the front, all four walls are similar in design, tied together with continuous horizontal features. Each story had four large classrooms originally, one at each corner, all opening into a north-south hall. The main north entry is emphasized between classrooms with a central arch at ground level (inscribed with the school’s name and building date), a setback on second, and an arch-fronted dormer at the top.

Historical Significance

Col. Wolfe School is also significant for its historical connections on three distinct levels:

  1. For commemorating Col. John Simms Wolfe, an important figure in local Civil War history;
  2. For its place in the history of Champaign’s schools and its relationship with architects Spencer and Temple;
  3. For being the career-starting design contributed to by Spencer and Temple’s employee, Walter Thomas Bailey, the first African American man both to graduate from the University’s Architecture program and to be licensed in Illinois.

John Simms Wolfe

John Simms Wolfe (1833-1904) was a local lawyer revered for his patriotic enthusiasm in raising troops locally after President Lincoln’s call to arms in the Civil War. In 1861 Wolfe helped form Company A of the 20th Illinois Volunteers, serving as its Captain. In 1864 he raised the 135th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, earning the title of Colonel that stayed with him the rest of his life. Following the war, Wolfe continued as a well-known, highly respected lawyer of great integrity. Shortly after his 1904 death, Wolfe was chosen as this new school’s namesake, an expression of the city’s high regard for a distinguished citizen.

Spencer and Temple

Architects Nelson Strong Spencer (1857-1949) and Harry R. Temple (1877-1923) were graduates in Architecture from the University of Illinois (1882 and 1901, respectively). Their firm was influential from 1900 to 1915, espeically for designing several schools here and in at least twenty other Illinois towns. Among Champaign’s examples were Col. Wolfe and Columbia Schools, both 1905 and of similar design, although Columbia is much modified.  These were among eight new schools built in Champaign between 1894 and 1914. That building boom reflected the growing population of the period, along with new ideas concerning education. 

The style of Col. Wolfe School has been called “Queen Anne” or “Jacobean,” in keeping with late 19th-century historicism, but it also shows hints of more modern concepts. Its horizontality and deep, overhanging eaves suggest Chicago’s Prairie School. Its use of logical layout, updated mechanical systems, and many large windows also reflect more modern educational goals, enhancing children’s learning in efficient, comfortable conditions. Thus Spencer and Temple were of their time, having roots in the recent past, but also looking forward.

Walter Thomas Bailey

While Spencer and Temple were architects of record for Col. Wolfe School, another member of their firm brings an additional layer of significance to the building. Walter Thomas Bailey (1882-1941) was also a graduate of the University of Illinois in architecture (1903), and as noted above, the first African American to complete that program and be licensed in Illinois.  Bailey worked with Spencer & Temple from February, 1904.

His obituary states that Walter Bailey worked on the design of Col. Wolfe School. He saw this as a significant starting point in an important career. Soon after his time with Spencer and Temple, Bailey headed the Architecture Department at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute (Alabama) from 1905 to 1914; during that period, he also completed a Master’s in Architecture at the University of Illinois (1910). Beyond Tuskegee, Walter Bailey built a solid architectural career, designing important buildings in Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Chicago, where he moved his office in 1928. He developed a clientele of up-and-coming African American owned and led companies and organizations, creating for them an architectural presence driven strongly by the era’s social and cultural issues. Col. Wolfe School came at the beginning of Bailey’s career, but it was the start of his significant life achievement.  


Col. Wolfe School has now been empty for some time, leading to rumors that U of I wished to divest itself of the property. Nothing related was made public, and throughout 2019, U of I officials would only allude to its “exploring its options.” With much recent development in the school’s vicinity, rumors increased that it would be demolished for more skyscraper construction.  

However, the SHPO’s finding of National Register eligibility prevented the University from demolishing the school outright or quickly delivering it into developers’ hands. Instead, the SHPO forced a full historical and photographic documentation of the building, then its marketing — with a preservation covenant — before the University could consider demolition. Again, none of this public information was made public, despite direct inquiries. Then suddenly, in mid-November, the school was placed on the market without fanfare, if with a brief email notic from the UI Historic Preservation Officer.

The University’s marketing seems to consist of only two appearances of a listing in the News-Gazette’s legal notices, with no reference to either the building’s historic significance or its National Register eligibility, much less a price. This hardly suggests a vigorous marketing plan, especially when the period for submitting proposals runs only until December 21st. By contrast, according to Landmarks Illinois, normal procedure would include a full Request for Proposals process, providing extensive information on redevelopment possibilities and a 120-day response period. The University appears to be doing as little as possible to assure recognition and preservation of the Col. Wolfe School.

The Point

Time is short. A significant piece of our cultural history is on the chopping block! Please help locate a preservation-minded buyer who can see and work with this building’s important history. Tell anyone and any organization you know who might be able to save Col. Wolfe School. Ask them to contact Bruce Walden for details. And thank you.

Susan Appel is the Vice President of PACA.

Top image by Dees Stribling.

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