Area residents with an interest in and a love for local history can add another book to their must-read list: "Images of America: Urbana," prepared by Ilona Matkovszki and Dennis Roberts.
The photograph-rich paperback book is exclusively about Urbana (even the images of the University of Illinois campus are limited almost entirely to the east side of Wright Street) but even so, many of the pictures and some of the stories will be of interest to a broader readership. Even the most Champaign-centric reader ought to be intrigued enough to learn of the downtown Urbana saloon owner who kept a 6-foot alligator in a pond behind his West Main Street house which, incidentally, is still standing.
The alligator, of course, once escaped the Wahl property and was found several blocks away at a brick plant.
In truth, there probably aren't enough stories in the book to satisfy Urbana fanatics. But the photographs, many of them courtesy of the fabulous Urbana Free Library Archives, help make up for that shortcoming. Among the best are a photo of the Griggs House, a gigantic hotel and railroad depot named for the man who brought the UI to Champaign; an early 20th Century shot of what appears to be a parade down Main Street; some charming shots of old Crystal Lake Park in its heyday; and a remarkable photograph of what is believed to be the first cabin ever built in Urbana – a tiny frame building that was moved at least twice before burning down in the 1950s, when it was about 130 years old.
The history in the book – both photographs and text – is more focused on pre-1900 Urbana than the last century, which undoubtedly will disappoint those who want pictures and recollections from their lifetimes. While the book pays a well-deserved homage to architect Joseph W. Royer, who is singlehandedly responsible for many of Urbana's finest buildings including the Champaign County Courthouse and Urbana High School, many other structures, people and events of the last 100 years are shortchanged.
There are, for example, photographs of the old Urbana-Lincoln Hotel under construction and of the investors who put up the money to build it, but none of the story of a community coming together to build a modern hotel for what believed it was a modern sky's-the-limit community. Remember, this was during a period – the early 1920s – when the University was booming, best exemplified by its plans to build a 67,000-seat football stadium when the UI had just 9,000 students.
Not enough attention is paid to the story of Lincoln Square, an enormous financial and real estate transaction at its time (the 1960s), nor to the history of the hospitals that help define the city now.
Some of the darker sides of the city – the Urbana banker, John Thornburn, who absconded with school district money; and the Illinois Theater that was owned and operated by the Ku Klux Klan until the night it mysteriously burned down – merit more coverage.
Maybe this is just quibbling. The book by Matkovszki (an archaeologist at the UI) and Roberts (a member of the Urbana City Council) is entertaining and educational, which is what this type of book should be. By that measure "Images of America: Urbana" is a worthwhile investment for area history buffs and especially Urbana residents.