Jack Klasey: Kankakee’s Iconic Arcade Building

May 4, 2019

Emory Cobb’s original plan was to construct a library for Kankakee. By the time his Arcade Building opened in 1884, it housed offices, meeting rooms, a bank, the Kankakee Post Office, American Express and Western Union Telegraph facilities and an opera house with seating for about 500 people. As Cobb explained in remarks at the opera house debut on Nov. 14, “My first thought was to erect a library building only, but upon further reflection, I enlarged the plan, not losing sight of that objective. Rooms for a public library have been provided and are now available for that purpose.”

The building on the northwest corner of Schuyler Avenue and Merchant Street would not, however, become the site of a public library for nearly a dozen more years. Kankakee’s first tax-supported public library finally was created in November 1895 and opened for business in the Arcade Building four months later.

Erected at an estimated cost of $100,000, Cobb’s building had 90 feet of frontage on Schuyler Avenue and 140 feet on Merchant Street. The three-story structure was faced with locally quarried limestone on the first floor, and red pressed brick on the upper floors. It was divided into two sections: the eastern half containing the offices and meeting rooms, and the west half devoted to the opera house. The unique design feature of the building was its high-ceilinged, broad and well-lighted ground floor hallways. One hallway ran from north to south, the other from east to west. The offices lining these “arcades” had large windows on both inside and outside walls, filling them with natural light.

The Arcade Opera House actually began life presenting an operatic performance (in many smaller communities, “opera house” was a general term for any facility that hosted musical programs). On Nov. 14 and 15, “Mme. Abbie Carrington, formerly Prima Donna with Strakosch Grand Italian Opera Co.” headed a cast that serenaded Kankakee audiences with selections from “Faust” and other operas. On succeeding weekends, the opera house broadened its selections: George H. Adams, “the great trick clown,” brought his “Comedy of Errors” show to Kankakee on Nov. 20 and 21; followed by dramatic offerings (the Union Square Theatre success, “Led Astray” and Alexandre Dumas’ play “Camille”) on Nov. 27 and 28, and another comedic show, “Our Boys!” on Nov. 29.

For almost three decades, the Arcade Opera House would host dramatic, music and comedy performances presented by touring troupes, as well as local productions, such as Kankakee High School plays. At least one well-known actor was born here while his parents were performing at the Arcade: Fred MacMurray, who starred in a number of 1940s films and in the 1960s TV show “My Three Sons,” was born in Kankakee on Aug. 30, 1908.

In 1910, Cobb died; his opera house soon followed: Cobb’s sons, Charles and Duane, tore down the western half of the building in 1912, replacing the opera house with a new, five-story office structure. Although the name “Arcade” still was visible over the Schuyler Avenue doorway of the original building, the brothers renamed the structure as the Cobb Building.

The Cobb Building label only lasted until 1920, when the structure was sold for $500,000 to Kankakee real estate and insurance man Harry L. Topping. For the next eight years, it would be referred to as the “Topping Building,” before reverting to its original name.

In a Dec. 30, 1927, newspaper article announcing that the original (east) half of the building would be demolished and replaced by a five-story brick office structure, Topping noted that “it will be called the Arcade Building. That was the original name when it was erected 43 years ago by Emory Cobb.”

By July 1928, the new Arcade Building was completed and tenants were moving in. The office building was well-populated by health care professionals: there were 17 physicians, eight dentists, a medical laboratory and a druggist on the tenant list. Four attorneys maintained offices there; so did four real estate and insurance agents (including Harry Topping). A tailor, a shoe repairman, a cigar store and a newspaper stand also rented space in the building.

The Arcade Building name would remain unchanged for three-fourths of a century, until 2004. By then, the building had fallen upon hard times, along with the surrounding downtown business district, as stores and offices migrated to outlying shopping centers and business buildings. When Kankakee entrepreneur Joseph Franco purchased the Arcade Building in that year for $250,000, it was virtually empty, with only about 5 percent of its office space rented.

Franco carried out an extensive remodeling and updating of the building to attract new tenants. The building acquired yet another name: Clock Tower Centre. The name referred to a small, landscaped lot across Merchant Street, called Clock Tower Plaza. That lot had once been occupied by the Kankakee Federal Savings and Loan Building.

In 2008, the building was sold again; this time to Bourbonnais resident Jay Tamblyn, owner of a local property management firm. The building’s Clock Tower Centre name survived the ownership change and still is used.