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Joseph W. Royer and the old Paxton High School

Paxton has a rich history dating back to the middle of the 19th century. This history is reflected and preserved in many of the city’s significant historic buildings, including four listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP): the Paxton Carnegie Library (1903), the brick water tower (1887), the Dunnan-Hampton House (1897) and the Paxton First Schoolhouse (1856).  

Recently, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources determined that another historic building — the old Paxton Community High School/PBL Eastlawn School building — is also eligible for listing on the NRHP for its educational significance to the community. This school was designed by noted Urbana architect Joseph William Royer and was constructed in 1925.

Mr. Royer was born in Urbana on Aug. 2, 1873. He attended Urbana High School and graduated from the University of Illinois’ College of Engineering in 1895 with a degree in architecture. While a student, Mr. Royer played on the University of Illinois football team at the position of right half back. Following graduation, Mr. Royer spent a few years in Chicago, where he received practical experience with various architectural firms including Shepley, Ruttan & Coolige, Holton & Son, and Adolph Druiding.  

Returning to Urbana, Mr. Royer worked as city engineer from 1898 to 1906.  Mr. Royer was active for about 50 years, between 1897 and the early 1950s. During this period, he designed buildings not only in Champaign and Urbana but throughout Illinois and into Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin and North Carolina.  

The firm of Royer & Brown was formed about 1905 and over the years was known as Royer & Smith; Royer, Danely & Smith; and Royer & Davis. In November 1921, Mr. Royer was made a member of the Illinois Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Mr. Royer died of a heart attack on Saturday, Nov. 21, 1954, at age 81.  

To date, I have located approximately 200 projects that can be attributed to Mr. Royer and his various firms. Surviving records indicate the earliest documented building designed by Mr. Royer was for an Urbana residence in 1897, and by 1898 he was designing commercial buildings.

With the start of the 20th century, Mr. Royer was expanding his range of architectural designs. The new century started with the unveiling of Royer & Brown’s plans for the new Champaign County Courthouse. This Romanesque-style courthouse was ready of occupation by May 1901 and was dedicated on Aug. 22, 1901.

The available records and surviving buildings indicate schools and residences were the most common buildings designed by Mr. Royer, accounting for nearly half of his identified projects. Between 1902 and 1954, Mr. Royer designed 46 schools or school additions. His most productive period was the 1920s, when about 60 percent of his school projects were completed.

In my 2011 biography of Mr. Royer, I refer to the 1920s as his “golden age of schools.”  A 1929 advertisement for Mr. Royer’s firm identifies the team as “school architects” and states they conduct a “consulting service to school officials.”  After schools, Mr. Royer most commonly designed commercial and municipal structures, including several county courthouses built in Illinois, Iowa, Indiana and Wisconsin.  The remaining structures include fraternities, sororities, churches, hotels, county jails, libraries, theaters, country clubs, fraternal lodges, a post office, a pool complex and a park shelter.  

Mr. Royer was a capable, prolific architect who was a master of traditional Queen Anne styles prevalent at the turn of the 19th century, as well as Academic and Historic Revival styles. Surviving examples of Mr. Royer’s early residences from the late 19th century exhibit Late Victorian Queen Anne characteristics. At the beginning of the 20th century, Mr. Royer began designing buildings in styles that some have classified as “Academic Revivals.” Academic Revival styles included the American Classical Revival (1895-1950) and the Second Italian Renaissance Revival Urban Palace and Rural Villa styles (1890-1935).

The American Classical Revival movement was fueled by the architecture of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which employed classical Greek and Roman styles as models. Examples of structures designed by Mr. Royer in the Classical Revival Style include the Freeman residence in Urbana and the Dewitt County Jailhouse in Clinton. The Winnebago County Courthouse exhibits characteristics of the Second Italian Renaissance Revival Urban Palace style.

Most of Mr. Royer’s subsequent works represent various revival styles popular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Romanesque Revival and Romantic Revivals (English, French and Spanish).

Surviving examples of Mr. Royer’s work indicate he began designing in the English Revival Styles beginning about 1910. These styles became especially popular after World War I.  Many surviving examples of Royer’s buildings are done in variations of the English Revival styles, including the Urbana Lincoln Hotel (Tudor Revival), the Urbana Lincoln Lodge Hotel (Tudor Revival), the Champaign County Poor Farm (Jacobethan Revival) and numerous school buildings. Other revival styles represented by Mr. Royer’s work include Mission Style, Chateauesque Style and Gothic Revival.  

Mr. Royer’s personal residence in Urbana is an example of the Spanish Mission Style, while the Alpha Rho Chi Fraternity house in Champaign and the Zeta Tau Alpha Sorority house were designed in the French Chateauesque Style.  Urbana’s Unitarian Universalist and First Presbyterian churches were executed in the Gothic Style.

Though the bulk of Mr. Royer’s surviving work represents various types of revival styles outlined above, he also produced designs in more contemporary styles that were a reaction to the popular historical replicas of the time. These include the Christian Church in Urbana (Prairie Style); Effingham High School, Dixon’s Lincoln School (Art Moderne/Art Deco); Bloom Township High School and Urbana’s Leal School (Art Deco); Carle Medical and Maternity building (International Style) and the Mills-Petrie Memorial Library in Ashton (Art Deco).    

Due to Mr. Royer’s unique architectural skill and talents, many of the buildings he designed are on the NRHP.  These include courthouses in Illinois (Clay, Grundy and Piatt counties), Indiana (Warren County) Iowa (Henry and Linn counties) and Wisconsin (Douglas County); University of Illinois fraternity (Alpha Rho Chi) and sorority (Alpha Xi Delta, Zeta Tau Alpha) houses; the Illinois Traction Building in Champaign; and the Urbana-Lincoln Hotel in Urbana.  

The magnificent Art Deco Bloom Township High School in Cook County, still in use as a school today, is also on the NRHP.  

In addition, several of Mr. Royer’s buildings in Urbana have been designated local landmarks: the Freeman Residence (1902), the Hieronymus House (1919) and the Tiernan Block/Masonic Lodge (1913). Mr. Royer’s Urbana residence (1905) is part of the Joseph W. Royer Historic District, which includes the small cottage he built for his mother-in-law, Ella Danely (1926).

Mr. Royer’s Paxton Community High School/PBL Eastlawn School building is a solid structure that has endured for nearly a century. Many of the schools designed by Mr. Royer continue to function as such. Among these is Washington Junior High School in Dubuque, Iowa, designed in 1922 and very similar in design to the Paxton school.  

Creative thinking in other communities has successfully repurposed schools of similar age and design into successful retirement homes, apartment buildings, American Legion halls, police stations, community centers, etc., illustrating the durability and functional potential of these structures.

The high school that Mr. Royer designed for Jacksonville in Morgan County in 1920 is now a successful apartment complex, as is the former Zeta Tau Alpha sorority house (1928) in Urbana, which was recently lovingly restored as “Chateau Normand” and consists of 19 apartments with “unique character.”  

As was recently reported in the Ford County Record, inclusion of the Paxton Community High School/PBL Eastlawn School building on the NRHP would make the building eligible for significant financial incentives for private reuse in the form of a 20 percent federal historic tax credit and a 25 percent state historic tax credit which would be of great assistance in the renovation and upgrading of this historic building.

I strongly urge the citizens of Paxton to support the preservation and adaptive reuse of the Paxton Community High School/PBL Eastlawn School building.

The architecturally unique and solid historic schools are disappearing at an alarming rate. Recently, the Champaign Unit 4 School District demolished the historic Dr. Howard School, dating to 1910. In 2015, the Royer-designed Middletown High School in Mahomet was demolished, and the Washington School in Monticello, built in 1894, and the Honeywell School in Hoopeston, built in 1927, are slated for demolition in the near future. Once these buildings are gone, they’re gone forever and an irreplaceable part of a community’s unique local history is lost.

Paxton has a rich architectural heritage which includes significant structures designed by prolific architect Joseph William Royer of Urbana.  Not only did Royer design the Paxton Community High School/PBL Eastlawn School building, he also designed the Ford County Courthouse (1906), nearly 20 years older than the high school yet still in use today.  

The city is fortunate to still have two historic architectural treasures designed by a master architecture of local and national renown, who was born and educated in East Central Illinois. Recognizing and preserving these and other unique and historic cultural resources should be a priority of the city of Paxton.

Brian Adams is a Champaign resident who has a master of arts degree and Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Illinois. Between 1996 and 2012, he worked as an archaeologist for the Public Service Archaeology and Architecture Program at the University of Illinois. Currently he is asistant director of statewide surveys at the Illinois State Archaeological Survey at the University of Illinois.  He has served on the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council (IHSAC) and is currently concluding a four-year term on the board of directors of the Preservation and Conservation Association of Champaign County (PACA). In 2011, he published the biography “Joseph William Royer: Urbana’s Architect.”