In the late 19th and early 20th century, all-purpose community buildings were erected in towns all over Central Illinois. Although many of these often-elegant and always eminently practical structures —called halls or opera houses and usually privately developed — have fallen to the wrecking ball, there are a few survivors.
One of the finest remaining examples is the 97-year-old Mount Hope Township Community Hall.
Located in the village of McLean, at the corner of Morgan and Clinton streets off the town square, the handsome brick-and-stucco building has played host to innumerable club meetings, lectures, ice cream socials, public dances, movie nights, wedding receptions, family reunions, anniversaries and community celebrations. What’s more, McLean High School did not see fit to build a gymnasium until 1950 because they could use the hall for basketball games, student plays and commencement ceremonies, and until 2002, the township library occupied the front end of the nearly century-old building.
The Mount Hope Township Community Hall (early on, it was sometimes called the McLean Community Hall and Library) rose phoenix-like from the ashes of a July 24, 1915, fire that claimed Columbian Hall, its 1892-1893 predecessor. Funds for the erection and operation of the older hall came from a community association that had raised $4,000 through the issuance of 400 shares of stock.
About a month after the fire, the association voted 233-54 to rebuild on the same site. New funds were raised by issuing an additional 500 shares of association stock, while three leading McLean citizens donated $4,000 for the planned township library, which was to be housed in the building. All told, the new community hall cost around $17,000, or more than $300,000 in today’s dollars.
The architect was Aaron Trabue (A.T.) Simmons of Bloomington, who specialized in public buildings, and has to his name more than 70 Carnegie libraries in 13 states. In Bloomington, his buildings include 207 East Washington St. (the redeveloped Paxton’s building), the Castle Theater next door and the Lafayette Apartments.
The front third of the Prairie School-style community hall included a first floor library and clubrooms on the second floor above. The remaining two-thirds were mostly taken up by an auditorium/gymnasium featuring a stage and balcony, while the basement contained a dining hall, kitchen and a small township office.
Today the hall looks much like it did nearly a century ago. For instance, Simmons included a small room on the gymnasium balcony to hold a “moving picture machine.” It’s still there. Movies were shown on and off over the years, including the mid-1920s, when E.B. Noble rented the building for $400 a year and charged admission for twice-a-week offerings.
The official opening came on Saturday, Dec. 1, with a program that ended with a dance into the midnight hour. “It is intended for use by any society, club or group of people for any purpose of community benefit, and the association will rent it at a nominal price to pay expenses,” noted The Pantagraph.
During the Great Depression, the hall association found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet, the rental fees falling short of what was needed for taxes, utilities, insurance and upkeep. On March 24, 1939, a special meeting was held in which 769 shareholders voted unanimously to sell their building to Mount Hope Township for $1. There was little grumbling, though, for as noted by The Pantagraph, stockholders had considered their investment more of a donation, and as a point of fact, the stock had never paid a dividend.
To its credit, Mount Hope Township has remained committed to the building ever since, though a little help has been welcome from time to time. In 1980, Linda “Linney” Benedict, president of the Ladies League of McLean, organized “Operation Facelift” to raise some $40,000 for long-overdue renovations, with the replacement of the oil furnace used to heat the auditorium the number one priority.
In the spring of 2002, Mount Hope-Funks Grove Townships Public Library moved out of the old hall and into new quarters across the village square and the old library space is now a room commemorating McLean history. The Mount Township Community Hall remains a cornerstone of social life in McLean as it’s still used for weddings, anniversaries and other events, both public and private.
Back on Dec. 1, 1917, during the opening program, Dr. R.E. Hieronymus, a Mount Hope Township native and community advisor with the University of Illinois, spoke on how the new community hall embodied the ideals of small town neighborliness.
“Notice how many times ‘our’ is used this evening — not ‘mine’ or ‘yours,’ but ‘ours,’” he said. “This is ours, and this will be more and more the place where the life of the community shall express itself in deeper ways.”