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Dating to 1896, the Burnham Athenaeum is a neo-Classical structure designed by Julius A. Schweinfurth, built from cream-colored bricks with terra cotta accents and a pale green slate roof. Its south side boasts a pediment surmounting four Ionic columnns. An inscription over the door reads "This building was erected by A.C. Burnham as a free public library for the city of Champaign anno domini MDCCCXCV." Burnham was the Champaign banker and philanthropist who donated the building site and additional funds for the library's construction and acquisition of books. The building faces out onto West Side Park, the county's oldest public park, established c. 1854. Since 1980, it has housed a law firm.


  • This building housed the Champaign Public Library until 1978.

Prior to the Athenaeum's construction, residents who belonged to the Champaign Library Association could make use of a small reading room (established 1868), which contained ~300 books as well as periodicals. In 1876, the Association disbanded and donated its holdings to the City, which then opened the Champaign Public Library and Reading Room, operating on a $1000/year budget. This library grew to contain 750 books and had one librarian. A.C. Burham's 1894 gift, in memory of his wife Julia Finley Burnham, marked a major turning point for the public library. Two years later, the new Burnham Athenaeum was complete.

At the Athenaeum's official opening in 1896, University of Illinois president Andrew Draper delivered the ceremony's closing remarks: "We have been given this magnificent building and now we should undertake to put it to its true uses. There is no Institution which can be reared in a community which will work greater good than a public library" (quoted in Winay et al., "National Register of Historic Places"). Students and faculty from the University of Illinois frequented the Burnham Athenaeum, and a children's department was established within the library in 1899.

Burnham Athenaeum served as the Champaign Public Library until 1978. Over the decades, its holdings and staff expanded considerably, from only 5593 books and 2 librarians in the beginning to more than 100,000 books and over 40 staff members at its closing. At this point, the Champaign Public Library needed to move to a bigger location. A 1979 fire damaged the Athenaeum's roof and interior, but most of its interior decoration (paneled wood ceilings, columnns, wooden molding, fireplaces and mantels) remained intact. Following restorations, the law firm Meyer Capel moved into the building in 1980.

"The Burnham Athenaeum: A Living Library of Legal Knowledge." Meyer Capel. Accessed December 26, 2017. http://www.meyercapel.com/burnham-athenaeum. 

Hi, Sai, Viktorija Stropus, andZhou Yu. "Burnham Atheneum." ExploreCU. Accessed December 26, 2017. http://explorecu.org/items/show/297. 

"History." Champaign Public Library. Accessed December 26, 2017. https://champaign.org/about/history. 

Winay, Nora, Paul Selin, Gary Olsen, Michele Olsen, Joyce Wajenberg, and Russell Dankert. "National Register of Historic Places Inventory--Nomination Form: Burnham Athenaeum." U.S. Dept. of the Interior, NPS. January 17, 1978. Accessed November 17, 2017. http://gis.hpa.state.il.us/pdfs/200206.pdf.

Image credit: 
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ec/Burnham_Athenaeum_Champaign_Illinois_4123.jpg.