Homes: A grand home
A grand home
An elegant University Avenue home features fine craftsmanship.
Story: Jodi Heckel
Photos: Heather Coit and Robin Scholz
The stately Georgian-style brick home was a showplace when it was built in the late 1920s, a solidly constructed mansion built by a man from a wealthy banking family.
It remains a standout on a street filled with large, elegant older homes.
The home, near Dr. Howard Elementary School in Champaign, was built in 1928 by B.B. Harris. His family founded the First National Bank of Champaign in 1865. The charter was signed by family friend Abraham Lincoln.
A neighbor recalled seeing the foundation for the home dug out by horse-drawn shovels, using a winch system set up across McKinley Avenue to the east.
Over the years, the 5,500-square-foot home has been the site of intimate black-tie dinners and large holiday gatherings. The three-story house features a large living room; formal dining room; parlor turned TV room; five bedrooms, plus two rooms used as offices that could also function as bedrooms; screened porch; and large backyard providing plenty of room for kids to play. The basement adds about more space.
Sara Latta, a science writer and author of books for children and young adults, and Tony Liss, a physicist, lived in the house for more than 20 years, and raised their three children there.
“When we first saw this house, I thought it was beautiful but a little too grand. I couldn’t picture myself in it,” Latta said. “I was wrong. It’s just a great place to raise a family and a great place to entertain.”
Latta and Liss were living in Urbana when they began looking around for a larger home. They had 5-year-old twin girls and Latta was pregnant with their son.
“We like something older with a little character,” Latta said.
They fell in love with the charm and elegance of the home.
“It just feels sort of warm and inviting to me,” Latta said. “I like feeling like I’m in a house where someone took pride in the craftsmanship in making it.”
They loved the original woodwork throughout the house; the built-in bookshelves in the living room and parlor; and the heavy, carved doors that curve at the top, between the foyer, parlor, dining room and kitchen.
The home has four fireplaces, including ones in the living room, dining room and master bedroom. Exquisite chandeliers, original to the home, hang in the foyer and dining room. The main staircase with its wrought iron railing curves around to the second floor.
Another thing about the house that appealed to Latta and Liss was the huge lot, almost 9/10 of an acre. Latta did a lot of gardening before she became busier with her work.
The home had been well-maintained and was in very good shape when the family moved in. They’ve made some cosmetic changes, particularly in the dining room.
Latta and Liss added new wallpaper, by Bradbury & Bradbury Art Wallpapers, with a vintage look in keeping with the character of the house.
They also put in a new walnut floor by Birger Juell of Chicago, a high-end designer of custom-built wood floors. The parquet floor in the Latta/Liss home is the Versailles pattern, with a diamond and cross-hatch pattern of wood that was hand-cut and hand-scraped.
The current kitchen was once two rooms – a kitchen and a butler’s pantry, separated by a wall. A previous homeowner remodeled the kitchen, enlarging it by taking out the wall and adding a center counter space where the wall had been. A small brick fireplace was also added, tying into the chimney flue in the dining room.
“It’s a great little fireplace in theory, but in practice, if you light a fire in there, sparks tend to pop out on the floor,” Latta said.
It’s also not quite deep enough for a pizza oven, so she burns candles in it.
Latta and Liss replaced the kitchen wallpaper and repainted the original wood cabinets, which are a creamy butter yellow, in the area that was the butler’s pantry. They replaced the appliances, put in granite countertops and added tile behind the stove.
They also replaced the windows in the kitchen and living room with more energy-efficient ones. The home is well-insulated, with thick walls, and previous owners upgraded the wiring and heating, cooling and hot-water systems.
The kitchen has a doorway to the back stairs, which would have been used at one time by servants in the home. A call box next to the stairs has numbers to indicate call patterns, which could be used to summon servants to different rooms in the house, depending on the pattern of the ring.
Upstairs, a previous owner added a new fireplace mantel and moldings and a walnut parquet floor in a herringbone pattern in the master bedroom and dressing room.
“It feels like it has a lot of character,” Latta said. “I like to imagine all the many lives of the people who have lived here.”
The previous owners gave a lot of parties, and Latta and Liss have a large annual holiday party.
“More than one person has told me they had their first kiss in this house,” Latta said. “I think the house holds a lot of good memories. It’s a great place to host a party and people feel comfortable here, I think.”
This past holiday season was the last the family will spend in the home. Latta and Liss are moving to New York City, to a 1,450-square-foot apartment on the Upper West Side, about five blocks from where Liss grew up. He’s taken a job as dean of science at the City College of New York.
Latta said the home has been a great place to raise children. Among her favorite memories are of her children and Gracie, the St. Bernard the family had for 11 years, playing in the yard, and making a fire on cold winter days.
“All three kids are readers,” Latta said. She remembers “sitting around reading in the living room on a cold winter day with the fireplace going. “I think everyone who comes in puts their imprint on the house in one way or another,” she said. “I think we’ve managed to preserve the character of the house.”