The house of Weiss Lancaster’s youth was a magical place to grow up, an old Victorian mansion with back stairs and a tower and a huge porch.
It was a lively place, too, full of artwork gathered by his father, former University of Illinois art Professor Ed Lancaster, who cultivated a salon atmosphere with artists and dancers visiting from around the world.
And it was full of history, originally owned by the Solons, one of Champaign’s founding families.
Now it’s gone.
Like so many others, the house at 403 W. University Ave., C, succumbed to the wrecking ball last month.
It was heartbreaking for Lancaster, not just because it was his childhood home. Because he had tried so hard to save it.
Weiss loves old buildings. He owns a dozen rental properties throughout C-U, the majority of them “antique properties,” including a large Edwardian mansion at 309 W. University Ave., C. He also rehabbed the former Ginza building at Fourth and University.
He traces that love back to his childhood at 403 W. University, where his family moved in the early 1960s. They lived there for 20 years, renting the property from a Solon descendant who lived next door.
The house had five bedrooms, two bathrooms, a formal parlor, a living room and a dining room, with incredibly detailed Victorian woodwork and a grand staircase with thick wood posts.
“You can imagine being a little kid, playing in a mansion was a dream come true,” Lancaster said. “We always felt that West Side Park was our private playground.”
He was a teenager when his family moved to another Victorian house a block away at 507 W. Park Ave., which is still there. But the University Avenue house was home.
Lancaster heard about the house going on the market earlier this year and decided to bid on it. It turned out to be an emotional, and bureaucratic, struggle.
His parents had died, and returning to a house that brought back so many childhood memories was difficult.
Then he went inside. It was, in his words, “a catastrophe.” Bought by a flipper, it had gone into foreclosure, and then squatters moved in.
“It was an absolute destroyed mess,” he said. “It was knee-deep in garbage and waste. Some of the walls were covered in mold, and some of the drywall and plaster was ripped out.
“Even though this is what I do for a living, it was very clear this would be a very difficult struggle to try to do something with the property.”
It was listed at auction by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and there was a 30-day period during which it was available only to single-family owners.
Lancaster met with his attorney to complete the 24-page HUD document releasing the agency from liability for lead paint or mold or other problems. He crunched some numbers to determine what the house was worth and what it would cost to fix up.
He ended up offering the full asking price: $86,000, in cash.
As Lancaster understands it, he won the auction. He calculated that he’d have to invest another $200,000 to $250,000 in the house, and it would be hard to recoup that under any rental scenario. But it was “a labor of love.”
Then HUD informed him that it had canceled the auction, saying the mold on the inside was too prevalent (even though he had signed the releases). He couldn’t get much information from officials at HUD, and still isn’t exactly sure what happened.
The house sat empty for a couple of weeks. Then a crew was brought in to remove the debris and tear out moldy walls. After that, it “looked a lot more presentable,” he said.
Then HUD suddenly put it back on the market for $86,000, this time with no waiting period.
With three offers now on the table, Lancaster upped his price to about $91,250. But he finished second. The house sold for $100,000, according to county property-tax records.
He felt a mixture of emotions. Guilt that he didn’t try hard enough. Relief because it would have been an enormous project. And sadness, because it’s the place his family, and the hundreds of people who visited from around the world in the ’70s and ’80s, consider the Lancaster home.
“To have lost it, to have tried not once, but twice — it was heart-breaking,” he said.
The new owner wasted no time tearing the house down. Lancaster hasn’t talked to him, and doesn’t want to second-guess his decision.
But the house’s condition wasn’t as bad as initially thought, he said, and there are few properties in Champaign with the same history, beauty or prevalence. He wishes now he had started a social-media campaign to save it.
“It does seem a shame that without much input from the community, something that is such a part of the fabric of Champaign could be allowed to disappear within a couple of days,” he said. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
The new owner didn’t say what he planned to build there but did keep several important architectural pieces from the house, including the stained-glass windows, Lancaster said. He understands “there was something historically important to the property, which is a wonderful thing. As long as it was saved, that’s the important part.”
The owner also allowed the Preservation and Conservation Association to salvage other parts of the house, though he wasn’t interested in working with PACA to restore it, said Director Tom Garza.
Lancaster got some of the woodwork and a wall sconce that used to be on the back
staircase, “the one I came down every day of my life for breakfast,” he said wistfully.
Garza said “there’s no reason” the house should have come down. It needed work, he said, “but lots of things do. It’s a sad loss to the community.”
He argued that Champaign needs to update its historic-preservation laws to allow public input, as Urbana does.
One of Champaign’s most interesting features is its architecture, Lancaster said, and “it’s disappearing at an alarming rate.”
There are many properties worth saving, worth remodeling, “worth keeping rather than tearing down.”
______________Julie Wurth blogs about families and kids and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 217-351-5226, email@example.com or Twitter.com/jawurth.
I am so sad the house was torn down. It's such a shame. I would've loved to have seen it renovated.
Besides, where will Andre live now????
Special thanks to Kendra for sharing this with me! Now I want to read Lancaster House again!