Nathan H. Cohen was born in Philadelphia on February 4, 1850, one of eleven children. Cohen moved with his family to Cincinnati, where as a young man he learned the craft of rolling cigars--a trade that provided him with employment for much of his life.
Cohen had a wonderful tenor voice. While working in Chicago he befriended members of Hooley’s Minstrels and began to appear with them in various stage productions. Cohen moved to California in the early 1870s where he furthered his vocal trained, joined the Marston Theater Company, and toured California and Nevada with Madam Mulder-Fabbri’s Italian opera company.
Cohen returned to Illinois and entered into partnership with Samuel Eppstein, owner of a cigar factory in Champaign. In 1878 Nat opened his own cigar factory in a commercial building on the northeast corner of Race and Main streets in downtown Urbana. By 1902, Nat Cohen had purchased the building, referred to as “Cohen’s Block. Nat’s eldest son, Sidney, joined the firm in 1906, and within two years the family business was listed in the city directory as “Nat Cohen and Son.” In 1907 Cohen replaced the older wood-framed building with the elegant brick building that bears his name today.
The Cohen Building was designed by noted local architect Joseph W. Royer for prominent Urbana Businessman and cigar manufacturer Nathan (Nat) H. Cohen. Other major downtown building designed by Joseph W. Royer include the Urbana Free Library, the Urbana Lincoln Hotel, and the Champaign County Courthouse.
Nat Cohen’s business office was located on the first floor with a separate entrance facing Race Street. The cigar factory was on the second floor, along with other business offices including the United States Insurance Company and a dentist’s office. The Urbana Banking Company, the Parlor Barber Shop, and the Urbana Candy Company occupied the commercial bays on the first floor facing Main street. The cigar factory remained in operation until Nat’s retirement in 1913. Through the years the Cohen Building was home to a wide range of businesses including retail shops, law firms, doctor’s offices, and the Embassy tavern.
Nat Cohen married Miss Addelaide Bernstein, a talented vocalist, in 1880. The cohens lived in Urbana, and their home on West Elm Street was a cultural meeting place for local artists and a venue for many musical performances.
Nat cohen passed away December 29, 1928, at the age of 78, while on vacation in California. Funeral services were held at Sinai Temple, Champaign, with burial at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Urbana. Architect Joseph W. Royer served as an honorary pallbearer.
While the uses of the first level has changed over the years, the building holds onto various remnants of its past tenants. The original, antique bank vault made by The Mosler Safe Co. still stands in the West Bay, while a less ornate safe sits directly below it on the lower level. The East Bay still contains the mosaic floor tiles and custom tin ceiling tiles of the Mouiyos Brothers' confectionary.