Local historians, city chroniclers, archivists, and memory keepers agree that the site on which Hamilton Walker’s stands, at 201 N. Neil Street, is an iconic local heritage. Constructed as an armory in either 1881 or 1884, the building was acquired and transformed into the Walker Opera House, the first legitimate theater in the area that became the epicenter of arts and culture in Champaign. Over the next three decades until 1914, the building transformed from opera house to vaudeville hall, movie theater to venue for high school dances and graduations, assembly site for big game victories to thriving downtown hub. In 1917, the Hamilton Hotel was erected on the same site and enjoyed years of prosperity. Many still remember the fire of 1977 that took the top two floors of the hotel, before the building was occupied by the Chicago Title and Trust. Our name pays homage to these two historic edifices—the Walker Theater and the Hamilton Hotel.
However, a recurring legend about Hamilton Walker—an alternate history—narrated to us by Champaign’s folklorists, history buffs, anecdotalists, raconteurs, fabulists, and fablers has captured our imagination. Let it be said that the denizens of Champaign know how to spin a yarn and tell a great story. The legend begins with a man named Herman David Walker, whose parents were part of the first wave of immigrants from England who settled the English Prairie in Southern Illinois in the early 1800s.
They put down roots in Albion. “I am laying off a new town to be called Albion. It will contain eight streets and a public square. Most likely it will be the county town, and if so there will be a court house and a gaol,” a civil engineer wrote from the English Prairie on October 30, 1818. Herman Walker found the solitude of the English Prairie which had birthed him disquieting . He yearned for the bright lights of a big city.
In 1851, the Illinois Central Railroad began grand scale construction of railroad projects in what is today’s Champaign-Urbana. Land speculators and merchants descended on the area for business opportunities. By 1890s, after losing money in several bad investments and stumbling from failure to failure, Herman Walker invested his last $200 in a fish and chip restaurant—he was English after all—at 201 N. Neil Street.
The shop was inherited by Herman’s only son, Maximilian, whom he named, for some confounding reason, after the Emperor of Mexico. Maximilian and his wife, Marion had one child—Hamilton Walker, born July 4th, 1917.
Hamilton grew up in Champaign in the 1920s and had an idyllic childhood centered around school, sports, family, church, and the fish and chip shop.
By his teen years, Hamilton hit his stride and became a popular young man. It is clear by all accounts, including the foremost authority on the Hamilton Walker legend, Eric Feltman, that Hamilton was a charismatic man. “Men wanted to be like him, and women couldn’t stay away from him,” Feltman said.
A few weeks after his 25th birthday, Hamilton began the first of four tours of duty in World War 2, fighting first in Italy with the British Forces, then in France, and finally in Germany.
A decorated officer, LTC Walker returned to Champaign after the war, a man of the world with exquisite acquired tastes.
The wanderlust that he had cultivated in Europe soon propelled him to Hollywood, where he worked as a military advisor to film directors making war movies.
Walker returned to Champaign a few years later and set to work to establish a fine dining restaurant and speakeasy. He called it Hamilton Walker’s. It was the embodiment of his style—worldly, cultivated, Hollywood, all-American, timeless, classic.
Welcome to the new Hamilton Walker’s, a tribute to all good things Champaign, all great things American.
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