Stewart Centre celebrates 50 years in downtown Freeport, Illinois
FREEPORT — More than 50 years ago, E. L. Wright, then president of State Bank, announced plans to build a $2.75 million mini-scraper in downtown Freeport.
The 12-story building that occupies an entire city block remains the same as it did on Sept. 7, 1971, when it opened bringing in tenants from across the area that would help Freeport grow and flourish.
On Tuesday, Brian Stewart, the owner of the 80,000-square-foot building known as Stewart Centre, held a small ceremony at the exact time and date of the original opening of the building 50 years ago.
“It’s an honor to own an iconic piece of Freeport history, though we are only the caretakers for the next generation for the next 50 years,” Stewart said. “I am a fan of this building and am fortunate to have acquired the building 14 years ago. I began looking at the history, sharing much of it on social media, and then decided to honor something that is still standing after 50 years that made such a mark in downtown Freeport.”
Over the years, Stewart, a state senator and retired Stephenson County sergeant, has become much more than an owner to the building that has served as home to several banks.
He has spent years collecting old pictures of the building and memorabilia. He calls the Stewart Centre “a monument of modernization,” which also has the distinction of being the tallest bank building in northwest Illinois outside of Chicago. It’s currently the home of U.S. Bank.
Some of the original tenants of the building 50 years ago were WFRL-Well Radio, accountants, doctors, a dentist, attorneys and a travel agency. There used to be a restaurant on the 12th floor called Jacks or Better.
Dr. Spencer Phillips, who moved his medical practice to Stewart Centre, was one of the original tenants. On Tuesday, Spencer Phillips’ widow, Marjorie Phillips, 94, and her children attended the ceremony for the building.
“I worked alongside my husband in his medical practice until he retired in 1988,” Phillips said. “Our practice was our life, and it was so exciting for us to be part of history then. I am excited to be here today. I look at this building 50 years later, and I am proud to have been there in the beginning. It was special to see what happened to downtown Freeport then, and this building still stands tall today.”
Stewart moved his business, Stewart and Associates, into Stewart Centre in 1989. He said he could barely afford the $75 a month rent, but knew then that moving into the building would help his businesses grow.
He said he didn’t know then that he could eventually become the owner and run as many as six businesses from the building.
“Yes, I still pay rent,” Stewart said. “I just wish it was $75 bucks a month.”
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Local officials shared a few words as well.
“I look at this tall building today, and it signifies something important that changed downtown Freeport 50 years ago and remains such an inspiration to our many downtown business owners,” said Freeport Mayor Jodi Miller.
“The Stewart Centre represents big and modern, and I think when many of our downtown businesses look at this building it has them reaching higher to maintain their businesses to be part of what downtown Freeport has to offer.”
Jane Lethlean is a freelance correspondent.