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Prehn's: A Student Tradition

Prehn's On Oregon, Champaign County History Museum

If you were a student at the University of Illinois between 1927 and 1966, then there is a good chance that Prehn’s was your local hangout. Prehn’s was named for its owner, Paul Prehn (1892-1973) who, from 1920-1928, served as one of the University of Illinois’ most successful wrestling coaches. In fact, he won 4 Big Ten Team Championships and coached 8 All-Big10 Place winners over that span. Upon retiring at the University, he would go on to serve as Illinois State Athletic Commission Commissioner and play a pivotal role in selecting the referee for the famous Tunney vs. Dempsey fight at Soldier Field. His selection proved controversial and even elicited a death threat from Chicago crime boss Al Capone!


By Perry Morris

The Daily Illini reported on 31 July 1921 that Bert Spaulding was putting up a large brick building across the street from his drug store on the corner of Green and Sixth. The two west rooms are to be occupied by Prehn and Palmer’s confectionery. It was reported that the other rooms on the ground floor were to be occupied by a ladies’ haberdashery, and Swearengen’s shoe store. The entire upper floor 66 by 110 feet will be used as a billiard and pool parlor.

Other partners in the construction were Roger Zombro, G.C. “Kandy” Ehrgott (Green Street barber), J.D. Flynn, and O.K. Burton (banking and insurance). Prehn had encouraged the campus businessmen to erect the building. The site had been considered as a location for a campus branch of the W. Lewis & Co. store.

Interior of Prehn's On Green, Champaign County History Museum

Jerome J. Sholem, in a 1973 remembrance of Paul Prehn in The News-Gazette, recalled that Prehn became interested in the restaurant business when observing the overflowing patronage of a campus hang-out called Mosi-Over’s known for double-decker sodas and banana splits. Before too many years, Prehn’s partnership with Palmer ended and he was the sole owner of the confectionery. Prehn bought the building in 1927.

Exterior of Prehn's On Green, Champaign County Historical Archives

Each Friday, Prehn’s front window would get a new huge cartoon poster done by student George Pharasee. It combined romantic campus scenes and spicy gossip. During the World Series, the head waiter would write up the radio bulletins each inning and post them in the front window while competitors just posted box scores. Prehn’s originated a piano bar and sponsored street dances on Green Street between Sixth and Wright.

Prehn’s-on-Green closed for the last time Monday 4 August 1941. Owner/manager Paul Prehn cited demands on his time as a recently appointed member of the Illinois Liquor Control Commission and other business interests.

Prehn’s on Oregon

By the University of Illinois Alumni Association, publuished April 5, 2017

Interior of Prehn's On Oregon, Champaign County History Museum

Prehn’s on Oregon opened in 1928 as the second Prehn’s location on campus, at the corner of Goodwin and Oregon. Prehn’s on Oregon was a campus mainstay for the next four decades—with a few hiccups. After 16 years in business, Prehn’s closed in 1944. A new establishment called The Flamingo, billed in The Daily Illini as “the hottest restaurant in town,” took its place—and then promptly closed the next year. Prehn’s was back for a time in 1945, but Paul Prehn sold the building to Dinty Moore’s in 1946. Like clockwork, Dinty Moore’s closed and Prehn bought back the building in 1947, and Prehn’s on Oregon finally accepted its role as one of the indispensable student hangouts in the history of the University.

Interior of Prehn's On Oregon, Champaign County History Museum

After a good run, Prehn’s closed in 1966, to be replaced by the very popular Treno’s, which operated in that location until the late 1980s, when Kinko’s took over the space. Today the former Prehn’s on Oregon is occupied by an Espresso Royale coffee shop and The Bread Company restaurant—campus landmarks for new generations of Illinois students.

View more photographs of Prehn's on the Champaign County History Museum Flickr Page.

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