The Vermilion County Administration Building, 201 N. Vermilion St., is an architectural gem and a tribute to Danville’s most-renowned permanent resident: U.S. House Speaker Joseph G. Cannon.
It was “Uncle Joe” who, in 1905, steered a bill through the House that created the U.S. Eastern District of Illinois. He was largely responsible for securing the $500,000 needed to build the monumental limestone Federal Building, which for decades housed all federal offices, federal courts and the U.S. Post Office.
The Post Office relocated to a new site, a block east, in 1985. The federal court moved to a new building in Urbana in 1993.
Happily, in 2017, the General Services Administration gave the largely vacant Danville building to Vermilion County for office use. That emptied the old Courthouse Annex, which had become a liability because of terra cotta falling from adjacent Breese Tower.
The Federal Building was part of a Vermilion Street building boom. The Temple Building was completed in 1901; the Danville Public Library in 1904; the Adams Building and the Holland Apartments in 1905; the Baum Building in 1907; and in 1913, both the Elks Club and the Vermilion County Courthouse.
Cannon, 1836-1926, built his 26-room mansion at 418 N. Vermilion St. in the 1870s. He was in Congress for 46 years and served as speaker from 1903-11.
Fittingly, he was the star of the show when the Federal Building was dedicated on Sept. 14, 1911. Oil portraits of Cannon and U.S. District Judge Francis M. Wright were unveiled that day.
“We do not present these portraits because you have gotten this building for the city, and carved out this judicial district, but because we appreciate it, and want you to know it,” attorney Frank Lindley, chairman of the dedication committee, said.
One of the highlights came during a speech by U. S. Rep. W. A. Rodenburg, of East St. Louis. As a young congressman, he had learned the business of lawmaking from Cannon.
“I have seen him under circumstances which would have completely overwhelmed a less intrepid soul,” he said of Cannon. “I have seen the House of Representatives in turmoil and confusion and in utter disregard of all parliamentary procedure attempt to override the rules of the House and humiliate the speaker.
“Then I have seen this grim old warrior, brave, unyielding and determined, asking no quarter, returning blow for blow, contesting every inch of ground, hurl defiance at his enemies, bidding them, ‘Lay on, McDuff, and damned be he who first cries, ‘Hold! Enough!’”
In 1959, postal authorities began a push to get the post office out of the “landlocked” Federal Building. For the next 20 years, they cited a shortage of parking space and cramped dock conditions.
The federal court district was remapped in 1979. That brought pressure to open a “satellite” federal court in Urbana, nearer the center of the district.
The rest is history. But thankfully, for Joe Cannon’s political plum — the Federal Building — there’s a happy ending.
Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at email@example.com.