Urbana ‘castle’ will stay standing after new high school opens

School officials have no set plans for building’s use.

When Urbana opens the doors to its new high school in April, demolition on part of the current facility will begin to make way for parking but the oldest part of the building will remain.

The district’s facilities steering committee — a group of community members who determined the setup of the district’s new elementary and high school buildings — decided to preserve the 120-year-old structure dubbed the castle.

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“It’s iconic,” said Doug Crabill, community development manager for the city of Urbana and a member of the steering committee.“From a community tradition standpoint, it felt important to maintain.”

However, the district has no definitive plans for how the building will be used, Urbana Superintendent Charles Thiel said.

“Without handicap access or good access to the bathroom facilities, it can’t be used for much more without significant renovation,” Thiel said.

Urbana voters approved a $31.3 million bond issue in 2014 for the construction of a new high school and pre-kindergarten through eighth grade building.

The facilities steering committee was formed before the bond issue was put on the ballot. Comprised of district employees, local business owners and other community members, the group toured each school building in the district as well as school buildings throughout the region before proposing plans for the new facilities.

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Bill Borland, former athletic director for Urbana’s schools and a committee member, believes preserving the castle was crucial in winning support from the community for the district’s plans.

“It’s my opinion that, had we not included plans for the castle,” Borland said, “the bond issue would have been much more difficult to pass.”

The building holds sentimental value in Urbana, Borland said. When people attend football games and graduations, they want to see it.

“When you speak of the high school, that’s what people think of,” Borland said. “It’s a nostalgic part of the community.”

After Urbana’s first high school burned down in 1896, a new one was built in the same location, this time with a turreted tower. The building opened in 1898 and was called “The Castle on the Hill,” according to documents from Champaign County’s Genealogy Society.

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In May, Urbana’s class of 2018 will still walk out of the castle’s front doors and down the hill to the football field for graduation, a tradition the school has maintained since 1941.

Some parts of the historic building also will likely be used for storage, Thiel said.

The question of what to do with the castle after the new school opens was one that sparked a lot of conversation within the committee, Crabill said. The committee agreed the building should serve a purpose.

Crabill said he hopes there will be more discussion soon about finding a use for the building.

“We didn’t want it to just be a monument,” Crabill said.

The district will be responsible for the building’s upkeep, Thiel said, but he doesn’t have a good idea yet of what the cost of maintenance will be since the castle hasn’t been used as a standalone building since 1929.

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The castle building will be monitored on a regular basis with walk-throughs, Thiel said, and its temperature will be tracked remotely using a sensor.

In addition to the castle building, the current facility’s auditorium/gymnasium also will stay standing. Although the new high school has its own gymnasium, Thiel said the additional recreational and performance space will still be used by students and the community.

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