Champaign County, Illinois
Local Government Information Center

Courthouse Clock & Bell Tower Restoration

The historic Champaign County Courthouse, located on Courthouse Square in downtown Urbana, Illinois, is currently undergoing extensive renovation. This included the addition of a new Justice facility for the Circuit Court and Office of the Circuit Clerk as well as remodeling of the original 1901 Courthouse into office space for the Offices of State’s Attorney, Public Defender, and Probation & Court Services.  The new Justice facility was completed and occupied in May, 2002, and the remodeling of the original 1901 Courthouse was completed in May, 2003.  Currently, renovation of the exterior brickwork is underway.

The story of the Courthouse begins in 1833 when Champaign County was formed with Urbana as the county seat.  The first courthouse, a log cabin, was so crude it saw only two sessions of court in 1836 and 1837.  It was replaced in 1840 with a brick and wood frame building that served for the next 9 years.  It was in this building that Abraham Lincoln appeared as a lawyer while riding the circuit.

The next courthouse, built in 1849, was a two-story building of brick and wood with a bell tower in the center of its roof.  Abraham Lincoln again served in this building and was in Urbana when he learned of the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, gave a speech in opposition to the spread of slavery in the territories and learned of receiving votes at the Republican Convention in Boston.  Mr. Lincoln left a substantial legacy in Champaign County.

The year 1860 saw a $30,000 remodeling of the courthouse to a steel frame with a masonry exterior.  This project was initiated by the County Board in spite of the growth west of the city and the incorporation of Champaign.  The project even included the creation of a horse-drawn railway from the Doane House near the depot in Champaign to the courthouse in Urbana to ensure the county seat would remain where it was originally located.

In 1883, the Seth Thomas clock was installed in the third County Courthouse with the advent of National Standard Time.  It supplied time to four dials on each side of the Courthouse Tower and struck the hour on a 1000-pound bell.

In 1901 a new courthouse designed by noted architect Joseph Royer (an Urbana resident and graduate of the University of Illinois School of Architecture) was dedicated.  The building cost $150,000 and was done in the Romanesque style with red sandstone and mottled brick exterior.  The beautiful building had as an architectural accent a clock and bell tower which rose some 135 feet and housed the Seth Thomas clock.  From its balconies one could see miles over fertile Champaign County fields.  Unfortunately, this tower was struck by lightning at least four times including in 1930 resulting in the loss of the clock tower spire and again in 1952 removing the belfry and shortening the tower by nearly 60 feet to a squat castle-like appearance at only 85 feet.  Mr. Royer was again called upon to design the battlements that topped the tower until 2009.

The original Seth Thomas clockworks, built in 1877, were removed from the tower in 2002 and renovated.  The clockworks were returned to the tower in 2009.

The Champaign County Board appointed a citizens advisory committee and charged them with obtaining private and public grant funds in order to restore the clock and bell tower to a height of 123 feet.  The original belfry has been reconstructed so that the historic Courthouse bell can be once again heard chiming the hours of the restored Courthouse clock.  Finials, gargoyles and stone details again ornament the tower, as they did when it was first erected.

Through private donations from County residents, $1.154 Million was raised to pay for rebuilding the clock and bell tower to its original 1901 height.