The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

January 20, 2013

‘Skyscraper’ was a bustling place in ‘40s


The ride up in the elevator of the First National Bank Building in Danville was usually enjoyable, but not on that long ago day as I made my first visit to a dentist as an actual patient.

“He likes to hunt, you know,” my father told me, as if that were a resounding recommendation for his dentist. I had learned early on one of the common denominators of many of his friends was their shared joy of hunting, usually pheasants. This group included his barber, the dealer where he bought his Dodge cars, his attorney, the livestock dealer he traded with and several others. Pheasants were abundant in the rural areas back then, and they all came to the country to hunt them.

The First National Bank owned the sky scraper built in 1918 at 4 N. Vermilion St., and occupied the lower level of the building. It was a busy place in the 1940s, with attorneys, doctors, dentists and other professionals in offices on the upper floors. The attractive building was in excellent shape, and enjoyed a waiting list of renters.

I had been to this dentist with my father when he had appointments, and was well aware of the arsenal of shiny instruments laid out on a tray in the treatment room. It didn’t take a long reach of a kid’s imagination to arrive at the conclusion some of those metal tools might be capable of inflicting a lot of pain. I had never observed the dentist actually working on teeth, but I had heard the drill running, and seen the results when my father came out. He was usually so numbed up he had a hard time carrying on a conversation about the prospects of the next pheasant expedition.

The elderly dentist did not treat children, at least that was what I had been told, and I had never seen any in his office. He was evidently making an exception in my case. He had one assistant who seemed to manage the office and occasionally lend him a hand when needed.

My father had a lot of work done there and I was well aware the assistant expected two things of young people — they were to be silent and were not to touch anything. On my first visit, she had become quite vocal when she discovered me exploring the little granite spit sink with the water racing around it. It was absolutely the most interesting thing in the office and had a magnet’s draw for a boy.

When I was placed in the large treatment chair, it was a relief to notice there wasn’t one instrument in the tray beside it. There wasn’t a tool in view. As I sat in the chair, I could almost reach the spinning water in the granite bowl, but it had lost its allure under the present circumstances. My father and the dentist were treating me to a lively conversation about what sized shot worked best to bring down the wily pheasant, or some such subject. It seemed for a few minutes I might have been forgotten.

But then the dentist looked around and seemed a little surprised to see me. He asked me to open my mouth so he could find the problem tooth. He reached in and touched it and I was waiting for the pain when he said, “Now, that wasn’t bad was it?” By golly, he was right, the tooth was out and I hadn’t felt a thing. The ride back down in the elevator was much more enjoyable than the ride up.

The First National Bank sold the building and moved out in 1961. Over the next several decades the renters left the building. It has been in a nearly steady state of decline for years. It cost $350,000 to build the structure, but it will cost many times that amount to restore it. In its present condition it represents a threat to the area around it. The city has taken action to protect pedestrians from debris falling from the building, but it is only a temporary fix.

The 12-story structure still remains the star of Danville’s skyline, and it marks the spot where Abe Lincoln and Ward Hill Lamon once had their law office. The old veteran is in decline, but it still has a heart of steel, a marble soul, and oh, so many memories.

Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.