Spotlight on Batavia: Then & Now Photos Show Downtown's Amazing Progress

Spotlight on Batavia: Then & Now Photos Show Downtown’s Amazing Progress

  • This article was written by Kane County Connects intern Allison Arguezo, following an interview with Batavia Mayor Jeffery Schielke, with additional information provided by the city of Batavia’s website.

Batavia is a community with great heart, history and heritage, but it’s also a city of progress.

Over the past five decades, the city has seen Randall Road develop into an economic hub that serves all of Kane County, but perhaps as amazing as any of the city’s accomplishments is the stunning transformation of its downtown.

In the past half century, downtown Batavia has gone from from dilapidated industrial buildings and sometimes-empty storefronts to a campus that purposefully blends art, nature, business, government and history.

There are signs of local art throughout the downtown, from the popular and growing Water Street Studios to the soon-to-be-renovated Depot Museum to the artwork at City Hall to the Bulldog statues that have been unleashed all over town.

The downtown area overlooking the Fox River features stunning bike trails, a downtown footbridge and open areas that compliment the natural environment. Restaurants and businesses are flourishing — and more are on the way.

It’s surprising to see just how much has changed from the Batavia then to the Batavia now.

What follows is a little bit about the community and its history, through the eyes of Jeffery Schielke, co-author of book John Gustafson’s Historic Batavia, past president of the Batavia Historical Society and the man who has held the office of mayor since 1981.

Batavia Then And Now

Maybe the best way to tell the story of Batavia’s downtown progress through the years is simply to look at photos from “then and now.”

It’s hard to believe that these two photos (above) are the same place. Both were taken looking south at the site where the McDonald’s now stands.

The above picture on the left was taken prior to 1960, looking west toward what today is the Batavia Depot Museum. The picture on the right was taken recently, showing the Batavia Depot Museum and riverwalk, an area that has become a picture post card trademark for Batavia.

The photos above are looking west on the Donovan bridge, where the Batavia Creamery now stands. The photo on the left was taken before 1960, showing the old Batavia Body Company.

From Industrial Site To Retail Shops

As the “before” photos indicate, Batavia’s downtown area historically was an eclectic mix.

At the city’s center was the Batavia Body Company, which started in 1852 as a wooden wagon manufacturer. The company, then called Newton Wagon Works, shipped wagons and farm equipment via rail all across the country.

The company became Batavia Body Company in 1937, and eventually did groundbreaking work with compressor cooled milk transporting vehicles, establishing Batavia as a leader in the field of refrigerated truck bodies.

But when the Batavia Body Company ceased operations on June 29, 1973, the building along the river became a huge challenge for city officials, laying empty for years.

In 1978, one of the sprinklers on the third floor broke, releasing so much water that windows and doors were beginning to break. It has been estimated that 580,000 gallons of water were wasted from the sprinkler.

This water disaster led to the demolition of the Batavia Body Company, and ultimately its redevelopment. Today, the area is the home of several shops that include the popular Batavia Creamery.

“It really just shows how we’ve upgraded the community,” Schielke said.

City Hall

Among Batavia’s success stories is the adaptive reuse of building for local government purposes.

One of the great examples is the former Appleton Windmill Building, which now hosts City Hall and the Police Department. Island Street now extends north to the Riverrain retirement community.

The ‘Woonerf’

The city of Batavia received the Complete Streets Design Award for its installation of a woonerf on North River Street. It’s a European-style “shared street” that looks like a brick plaza that cars are allowed to drive on.

The Batavia Library Campus

Downtown redevelopment includes a fantastic downtown library facility, which was dedicated on Jan. 27, 2002.

Voters approved by referendum the construction of the current 54,000-square-foot building to house the collection of 126,000 volumes, audio-visual materials, and computer technologies.

List Goes On

Water Street Studios, Randall Road development, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, the Batavia High School campus, residential and industrial growth, historic architecture that includes the Campana Building and the Gridley Residence, a Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie Style home — the list of Batavia’s progress, preservation and achievements over the past half century have been impressive.

But at the heart of its downtown success is the Fox River, once a draw as a power source and dumping ground for industries and now a draw for families, restaurants, government and businesses.

“We’re talking to three new restaurants and businesses that want to locate themselves in downtown Batavia,” Schielke said. “And it’s because they see these kind of unique attractions.”

About Mayor Jeffery Schielke

  • Family: Wife Linda. Married 30 years

  • Occupation: Real Estate Broker
  • Education: AA Degree -Waubonsee Community College BA Degree Aurora University, Associate Degree  Waubonsee Community College Bachelor’s of Arts in social science, Aurora University
  • Civic involvement: Co-Author of book “John Gustafson’s Historic Batavia” Past President Batavia Historical Society. Retired member Batavia Fire Department. Served on Batavia Auxiliary Police Force 1969-1978. News reporter for both radio and print media 1968-1980. Chairman of Tri-City Ambulance Board of Directors 1982-Present
  • Elected offices held: Mayor – City of Batavia 1981-2017; Chairman,Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) Council of Mayors 1997-Present; Chairman, Metropolitan Mayors Caucus 2007-2008
  • Education: AA Degree -Waubonsee Community College BA Degree Aurora University

Read More SPOTLIGHT Stories

The Spotlight series began in 2017 as part of the internship program for Kane County Connects. Here’s a look at some of the other Kane County communities profiled in the series.