In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the stretch of Main Street running from Locust north to Emerson was one of the more elegant residential districts in all of Bloomington.
The largest home was built in 1889-90 for James Thornton Snell, vice president and major stockholder of Corn Belt Bank of Bloomington. Sadly, the Snell house, like most of the grand old residences along this “businessmen’s row,” fell to the wrecking ball long ago.
Snell's three-story Queen Anne-style home designed by prominent local architect George Miller was a mix of Flemish Renaissance and Richardsonian Romanesque elements. It was clearly one of most significant residential commissions for an architect whose impressive body of work included Cook Hall (known as “The Castle”) at Illinois State University, Bloomington’s Central Fire Station (now Epiphany Farms Restaurant) on East Front Street and the Corn Belt Bank building on the north side of the courthouse square. Miller and J. Thornton Snell (the banker preferred an abbreviated first name) were likely friends, given the fact that architect eventually would sing at Snell’s funeral service.
Located on the 1200 block of North Main, the palatial residence was built at a cost of $27,000, or around $700,000 in today’s dollars — though that figure would be much higher if not for the fact that labor and materials were much cheaper 125 years ago. It was a showpiece for the prosperity enjoyed by the well-off during the late Gilded Age. In fact, in the fall of 1890, The Pantagraph ran a list of the most expensive homes built in Bloomington over the previous 10 years. Only one other residence — George H. Cox’s at 701 E. Grove St. —topped $20,000.
Snell and his wife, Hannah Conklin, used their new home and surrounding grounds to host various Bloomington society gatherings. In late July 1895, for instance, some 50 couples attended the “event of the season” that included a dance on the torch-lit south lawn. “The streets were lined with carriages stopping in their drives to tarry a moment and gaze upon the pleasing spectacle,” The Pantagraph reported.
In mid-December of that year, Hannah Snell played hostess to 350 women. The home's interior was bedecked in floral finery. “American beauties, roses, English violets, smilax and Easter lilies were in lavish profusion,” noted The Pantagraph.
Four months later, in April 1896, J. Thornton Snell died unexpectedly at the age of 56 from what was likely a stroke or cerebral hemorrhage. On the afternoon of April 18, Snell became faint while unboxing a pony cart, a present to his 12-year-old son, Harry. The senior Snell was told to lie down, but sometime between 6 and 7 p.m. it was apparent he was “past all earthly help.”
At the time, estimates of his wealth ranged from $250,000 to $300,000 (or about $7 million today, adjusted for inflation). “James Thornton Snell was a man of strong and marked characteristics,” eulogized The Pantagraph. “He would divide his last dollar to help a friend and would spend the last one to punish a foe.”
The now-widowed Hannah lived in the house until the early 1920s. It served briefly as the home for Illinois Wesleyan University President William J. Davidson, and was then purchased by the Knights of Columbus, which occupied the home for more than a decade before it became a Depression-era restaurant known as Club Silhouette.
The ignoble end for the now worse-for-wear beauty came in the summer of 1937. Given the residence’s size and the fact it was built of stone and brick, it took a full 10 weeks to bring it down. “Only a few sections of the first floor walls and the foundation now remain of the once stately residence,” reported The Pantagraph in late August.
The replacement for the 47-year-old architectural gem was a boxy, utilitarian Piggy Wiggly grocery store. At the time, there were few complaints about the loss. Local interest in historic preservation remained low until the late 1950s when Major’s Hall, the site of Abraham Lincoln’s so-called “Lost Speech,” was torn down.
A Piggy Wiggly advertisement from early 1941 claimed its Main Street grocery was the finest in Central Illinois. It was called a “drive-in” supermarket because it offered dedicated parking spaces, unlike most of the corner mom-and-pop corner groceries built in residential areas. The one-story brick building later became an Eisner Food Store, a skating rink, and then a local moving and storage company. U-Haul moved into the building in the early 1990s.
The evolution — or rather devolution! — of the Snell house site mirrored the changes that occurred up and down Main Street. In the mid-1920s the thoroughfare became U.S. Route 51, and the once-tony residential stretch gave way to a haphazard commercial strip geared toward automobile traffic. And even after city officials and residents began taking into account the historic nature of its older neighborhoods, still more Main Street homes were sacrificed for parking lots and the like.
Today, there are still a few lonely reminders of Main Street’s more graceful past, such as the George Miller-designed home on the 900 block. Now occupied by Hume Dental Associates, it was built in the late 1890s for George Agle, a dealer in leather, hides and feed.