GIBSON CITY — A group of concerned citizens is planning to buy and revitalize a building at 107 N. Sangamon Ave. to give it a greater presence in downtown Gibson City, perhaps as a theater and community center.
Organizers feel that preserving the landmark building will benefit the community by generating activity and community pride. Over the years, the two-story building — known to many recently as the Loys Building — was home to diverse occupants.
A fire on Jan. 30, 1883, destroyed most of the wooden structures on the west side of Sangamon Avenue between Eighth and Ninth streets, so local banker M. T. Burwell began rebuilding with brick. The new structure became known as the Burwell Building.
Early occupants of the first floor were furniture dealers, which also made wooden coffins and grew to include the undertaking business. These firms included S.L. Harnit and Wood (1884), S.L. Harnit (until 1887) and W.S. Lamb & Co. (1887 to 1937). In 1926, W.S. Lamb II converted space at the rear of the building into a funeral chapel.
A new chapter began when Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Wachs of Galesburg started Wach’s Ben Franklin there in 1942 and lived above the store. Mrs. Wachs was a sister to the famous poet Carl Sandburg.
The Wachs sold the business around 1958 to Mr. Loy, who continued a variety store, Loy’s Store, until 1986.
The building later occupied the KAS Variety Store (1988 to 1990) and Dollar General (1992 to 1994).
Later, the building was home to specialty stores, including The Silver Lion (1996 to 2001), Avalon Tea Garden (2001), Shirley Duncan Real Estate, (2002 to 2004) and The Store (2016 to 2018).
The second floor was originally divided into two sections. The owner’s quarters were in the front, and the Burwell Opera House occupied a large part of the second floor, with an area of 50-by-100 feet and a stage illuminated by gas footlights. Many social events, out-of-town shows and local talent entertainment and high school commencement exercises were held there.
The Burwell Opera House became to be known as “The Center of the Town’s Entertainment.” It also was briefly the site of the Gibson Library Association. Other groups and businesses located on the upper floor included Knights of Pythias Hall (1926 to 1929), USDA Soil Conservation Service (1944), dentist W. W. Templeton, (1947) and the Gibson Masonic Temple and Order of the Eastern Star (1926 to 1983).
Sadly, over the last few years the historic building has been underused, and it is now in a serious state of disrepair. Currently, the group is applying for grants to help fund the project.
Although the out-of-area owners are interested in selling, a price has not been decided. Plans are also being made for fundraising events and appeals for individual donations.
To learn more, to become involved or to suggest a purpose for the building, people are asked to contact Sharon Heavilin at the Moyer Library at 217-784-5343. New ideas and new committee members are always welcome, too.