63 Chester Street, Champaign, Illinois

The Gallery The Project Sign the Guestbook

Remembering a Historic Landmark

By Leslie Krause
July 4, 2021

Studio 54 Theme Party

I wanted to write today about the the loss of 63 Chester Street.

So many people have come to pay their respects to this iconic building, one that has served central Illinois for over 100 years, from its humble beginnings as a local buggy service shop to its legacy as a popular live music venue for up and coming local bands to one of the most happening gay and drag bars in the entire state of Illinois, and then finally a dance club where people from all walks of life could show off their moves to the best sound system in C-U.

Chester Transfer Co.

Chances R

H. Frank Chester, Owner
John, O’Byrne, Co-owner

“Bub” Bartholow, Owner
Cy Vaughn III, Co-owner


Chester Street Bar

Joe McNamera, Owner

Edwin K. Piraino, Owner

I’m sure these sentiments are echoed by many others — what occurred this past weekend was a devastating blow to our city, particularly members of the local LGBTQ community. A perpetual “renovation” project with no end goal in sight, that only resulted in years of continual gutting of the interior as well as a still unsolved arson and now even a collapse. This is something that never should be allowed to happen to any historic landmark in our city.

“The Bar and C-Street together were open almost forty years; that’s monumental. That touched a whole lot of lives. The fact that a gay bar lasted that long — had that kind of staying power in one community — I’d say that’s quite something, wouldn’t you?”

—Joe McNamera, former owner of The Bar

63 Chester Street was arguably the longest-running gay owned and operated nightclub in Illinois, having opened in 1978 by Joe McNamera who worked as the general manager at Giovanni’s. It was named “theBar", which became a code word for local gay men seeking meetup opportunities. On any given night of the week, The Bar attracted hundreds of eager partygoers from around the state, quickly becoming the premiere nightlife destination for LGBTQ residents and visitors, as well as University of Illinois students.

In 1983, the building was sold to Ed Piraino, owner of Giovanni's, which closed due to a fire. After a year of remodeling, it was transformed into a full-fledged dance club. The two major design changes were converting the front entrance into a vestibule and incorporating The Gallery as a main office and multi-purpose space. Although marketed as Chester Street Bar, the venue became known as C-Street amongst locals. While it still retained its designation of a “gay bar”, on most nights the clientele was evenly mixed.

Long before gogo dancers and drag queens graced the stage, 63 Chester Street had its roots in live music. Chances R was the brainchild of “Bub” Bartholow, who fashioned the music venue after a notable restaurant and bar of the same name in Old Town Chicago.

Initially opened in 1966, Chances R ushered in a rock ‘n’ roll revolution to C-U. It brought together talent from across the country as well as up and coming local bands, cementing the legacy of Chances R as a mainstay of live music.

National Acts

Local & Regional Acts

  • The Eagles
  • Chicago
  • Aorta
  • Three Dog Night
  • The Flock
  • Wayne Cochrane & The CC Riders
  • REO Speedwagon
  • Cheap Trick
  • Dan Fogelberg
  • The Regiment
  • The One Eyed Jacks
  • The Esquires
  • The Rave
  • Ice Blue Secret
  • Duke Tumatoe
  • The Finchley Boys
  • George Faber
  • Coal Kitchen

“The thing that always amazed our whole band was how competitive and how good the music was in Champaign.”

—Gregg Philbin, former bass guitarist for REO Speedwagon

Directly adjacent to The Bar and Chances R was The Gallery Ltd, a multi-level boutique selling jewelry, toys, housewares, and fashionable clothing. Deborah L. Fishbein, the shop’s owner and manager, was responsible for product selection. Her husband Martin Fishbein was a silent partner and also worked as a professor at the University of Illinois.

After the sale of 63 Chester Street to Ed Piraino, Debby moved her shop into the former Tavitt-Mattis Bank in downtown Champaign.

Of particular note is that 63 Chester Street was not named after the street, but rather the reverse.

In fact the original Chester Transfer Company became the namesake for the street, which was designated as First South Street throughout the late 1800s, until it was renamed by the Champaign City Council in 1914.

Chester Street ran perpendicular to the Illinois Central Railroad and terminated at First Street on the east and Neil Street on the west. As this vintage map shows, the block where 63 Chester Street is currently located was completely vacant in 1884.

Urbana Daily Courier (November 18, 1914)

An announcement in the Urbana Daily Courier, confirms that First South Street is to be named for the Chester Transfer Company in 1914.

Interestingly, the building was originally twice as big as it is now is, extending all the way back to Bailey Street. There was a hand-operated elevator with a freight entrance on the Water Street side, whereas the east side was used as a stable for the dray horses.

In the mid-1960s, the rear of the building was razed to make room for the Chances R parking lot, following zoning approval from the City Plan Commission.

The original purpose of 63 Chester Street was to be a service shop for wagons and carriages as well as a transfer house for baggage and freight, hence the large open archway in the front. H. Frank Chester served as General Manager of the Chester Transfer Co.

The building was constructed in 1885 for the Chester Transfer Co. which began operations one year later. It briefly served as an ancillary county morgue during the influenza pandemic of 1918. Then in the 1920s, it also became home of the Yellow Cab Company.

Daily Illini (October 14, 1904)

A 1904 advertisement in the Daily Illini newspaper states: The Chester Transfer Co. Carriages for Parties & Wagons for Baggage.

“A concerted effort to preserve our heritage is a vital link to our cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspiration, and economic legacies — all of the things that quite literally make us who we are.”

—Steve Berry, American historic preservationist

Suffice it to say, 63 Chester Street should have been placed on the American Registry of Historic Places years ago, certainly before all the devastating “renovations” and arson and collapse that stripped it of its unique character. Then again, for the longest time Chester Street east of the Illinois Central Railroad wasn’t considered part of downtown Champaign, despite being one block from Illinois Terminal. Perhaps that is why it was rarely appreciated by the City of Champaign, even during its downtown revitalization efforts.

Now it is gone, destroyed.

Such a loss was doubly impactful with Monday, June 28 marking exactly 52 years since the Stonewall rebellion in New York City — a tipping point for the gay liberation movement.

Maybe in some profound way, the confluence of this event and the Stonewall anniversary is meant to signal a new beginning. I can only hope, however, that we never forget the memorable experiences that thousands upon thousands of residents and visitors enjoyed at the historic landmark known as 63 Chester Street, Champaign, Illinois.

Copyright © 2021-2022, Leslie Krause. All Rights Reserved.
Photographs and illustrations are property of their original owners.