Oxtoby says she probably became a preservationist before the term was widely known. Although she liked history, she studied French language and literature in the 1950s at Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. Then she came home to Springfield and married Bob Oxtoby, an up and coming young attorney.
“I spent the next 20 or so years raising three kids. Nothing I’d ever done prepared me to save historic structures from demolition. I guess you can say I learned on the job. In the process I found the passion that has carried me through the past 40 years.”
Oxtoby, 79, credits local history enthusiasts Jim and Edith Myers with igniting her preservationist sensibilities in the mid 1970s when they asked her to help them buy and restore the Lincoln Herndon Law Office at Sixth and Adams streets.
”I learned a lot doing the law office,” she says. “We hired then state historian Jim Hickey to research and authenticate the building using what sources were available, including the Library of Congress. The state owns it now, and they know a lot more now about how the building was actually configured in Lincoln’s time. We put our time and resources into it, but our priority when we took it on was saving it.” Oxtoby doesn’t recall how much the project cost them.
“The Myers had their Prairie House art gallery and shop there, so there was commercial space in addition to historic interpretation space. But we never charged admission for visitors to see the office or court rooms. It was something we considered important to anchor historic downtown.”
Oxtoby credits her husband’s legal and financial knowledge for helping her learn the basics of real estate development. She likes the hands-on involvement of construction, but relies heavily on local architects to manage her projects.
Among the many commercial buildings she has restored and adapted for reuse is a commercial block along South Sixth Street that includes Maldaner’s Restaurant and the adjacent Trout Lily Cafe where she has lived in an upstairs apartment since her husband’s death a decade ago. She says she relishes the experience of living downtown. “If I ever feel lonely, I just walk downstairs and find people I know up and down the street. It’s a great way to live.”
Her first solo undertaking was the total renovation of her family-owned Pasfield Building at Sixth and Monroe streets. that now houses Merrill Lynch, and includes a modern addition and off-street parking. The project came about because of land left to her and her brother, Steve Bartholf. “Steve took the farm land, and I took the downtown buildings,” she says. Since then she has rehabilitated five 19th century commercial buildings, creating 30 rental and condo apartments in the downtown area.
“Carolyn’s projects helped spark the renovation of other historic downtown storefronts and brought new activity back to downtown Springfield,” says James Peters, Landmarks Illinois president. All of her apartments are occupied, usually by lobbyists and legislators. She says she’s less concerned about state government’s shaky financial situation than she is about getting more places downtown where people with disposable income can dine and shop.
“Retail follows rooftops,” she says. ”When I decide on a project I look at it like a renter would. I can’t remember ever being asked where a tenant can park. Instead of waiting for offices to fill back up, we need places where people can live. Recently I’ve had calls from two different couples wanting to retire downtown.”
A member of numerous boards and commissions, Oxtoby helped found the Springfield Heritage Foundation which accepts donations of historic properties and matches them with prospective developers who will restore or rehabilitate them.
“She has accomplished great things in her hometown and is an example to all of us,” the awards jury noted. “Many buildings, many battles. Nothing seems to have daunted her.”
Julie Cellini writes about history and the arts for Illinois Times.