The White, Harris, and Phillippe Mansions Revisited
Updated: Mar 4, 2019
This article by Dannel McCollum is reprinted from the Winter 2009 Issue of the Champaign County History Museum newsletter. The article is updated by T.J. Blakeman.
The first building in the 500 block of W. Church St. in Champaign was built as a residence for J.P. White. In 1855, in partnership with Jeffrey A. Farnam and Nathan M. Clark, former construction engineers with the recently built Illinois Central Railroad, White recorded a
plat encompassing an 80-acre farm that would now be bordered on the east by Neil St., on the south by Springfield Ave., on the north by Washington St., and on the west by Prairie St.
Some time before 1858 White apparently felt sufficiently prosperous to erect what was at the time the finest residence in the settlement that grew up around "Urbana Station," soon to be known as West Urbana. The house is pictured on the 1858 map of Urbana and West Urbana. It was a large, two story Italianate structure with a tower facing east. When addresses were assigned to buildings in the nascent city, it became 503 Elm. The house is next shown on the border of the 1863 map of Champaign County. However, by the time of this second map, for unknown reasons, White had seen fit to sell his grand home to former stockman and rising local banker, Benjamin Franklin Harris (1811-1905).
Little subsequently is known of J.P. White. White Street bears his name and for a time West Side Park was known as White Park. (The tract in the Clark, Farnam and White plat had been designated as a "Public Square," almost certainly with the idea of repositioning the county courthouse to that location. Clark also got a street named for himself.) In the end, the new community had to settle for a public park rather than a courthouse. In 1921, Champaign Mayor S.C. Tucker solicited money for a suitable monument at White's supposed grave, in recognition of the donation of the park. The effort came to naught when it was apparently not determined for certain that the person buried at that grave was indeed J.P. White.
Meanwhile, B.F. Harris prospered as a banker. Before he died at the age of 94, he was well aware that his bank was involved in plans to construct the pretentious yet magnificent building that still stands at the southwest corner of Main and Walnut streets. His home, along with the entire city block on which it stood, passed to his daughter, Rachael Jane Rebecca Harris (1853-1936). In 1874, Rachael had married David Andrew Phillippe (1843-1922), a farmer in Hensley Township, then some ten miles north west of Champaign.
The Phillippes are reported to have moved to the 500 block of West Church Street in 1910. It seems certain that the White-Harris home was demolished soon after B.F. Harris died and that a fine new home was built during the five-year period between 1905 to 1910. The grand new home, shown here, continued to occupy the full block but now faced Church Street. The outline of the home and carriage house, along with a connecting walkway, is shown on the 1915 Sandborn Insurance map. Rachael lived in the mansion until her death in 1936.
In 1937, the YMCA acquired the home. A plaque in the entryway dated 1938 indicates that the "McKinley Memorial YMCA" was established by an "initial gift by William B. McKinley and 1,089 citizens." It was not until after World War II that additions were made to the structure to make it functional as a Y. The small pool was added in 1946. The gym and locker rooms followed in 1953-55, and the large pool in 1982.
For a number of years, the Y has had plans to move to the western edge of Champaign. In 2007 the Y board put its facility on the 500 block of West Church up for sale. One year later, the Y announced that the property had been sold to the Owens Funeral Home, which is currently located in the historic Trevett home at the corner of Elm and University Avenue across from West Side Park.
UPDATE 3/2/2019: Plans never materialized to move the funeral home and the property was sold to Leon Jeske in 2009 for $450,000. Jeske initially signaled his desire to convert the property back to a private residence but that idea was abandoloed in favor of reopening the building as a fitness center. The facility was reopened in 2012 and served as the home of the local rollar derby club among other recreational uses. The McKinley Fitness Center closed its doors in 2015.
Finally in 2017, Champaign Unit 4 Schools purchased the property for $1.5 Million with plans to raze the strutures and construct new athletic fields for the expanding Central High School. On January 4, 2019, demolition began on the main structure.