Work goes on despite doubts
Fixer upper is an understatement.
“I buy the nastiest, crummiest, most dilapidated building in the neighborhood,” explains John Eglaston, who owns four historic properties in Springfield. “By the time I’m done, it will be the nicest one in the neighborhood.”
But some folks are losing patience, particularly when it comes to the Knox Flats apartments at 715 E. Cook Street, just south of the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, that Eglaston purchased more than five years ago.
“Personally, I think the city should shut him down,” says Ward 6 Ald. Cory Jobe. “He’s making a mockery of preservation efforts in the capital city.”
The roof of the three-story apartment building built in 1910 has caved in under Eglaston’s watch, its demise carefully recorded in a series of before-and-after photographs tucked inside a file in Sangamon County Circuit Court, where the city sought a demolition order. The interior is gutted. Cracks mar the masonry. Last week, Eglaston removed the exterior bay windows, poking large holes in the eastern wall to complement the hole in the roof – look up from the ground and you can see blue sky.
This isn’t what was supposed to happen.
When Eglaston bought the building along with his other dilapidated Springfield properties from the Downtown Springfield Heritage Foundation, the deal called for the “architectural integrity and historical significance” of the building to be preserved, according to the property’s deed. Nothing could be done to alter the historic features of the exterior. Improvements were to be accomplished “in a timely manner,” according to the deed.
“It has taken me a little longer than I anticipated,” Eglaston says. “I’m expecting to be done, probably, sometime in 2015. … I’m a retired structural engineer. I don’t do anything real fast.”
In 2004, before the roof collapsed, a Springfield architectural firm estimated renovation costs at $1.2 million. Eglaston, who says he’d demolish the building before he’d spend that much fixing it, figures the job will cost no more than $700,000.
“When is he going to put a roof on that building?” Jobe asks. “I don’t think this guy is living in reality by any means. I think he’s taken the city for a ride, and I think he’s taken the Heritage Foundation for a ride. … That building does not look structurally sound to me.”
Bruce Ferry, president of the Heritage Foundation, could not be reached for comment. Victoria Ringer, executive director of Downtown Springfield, Inc., which provides staff support for the nonprofit foundation, said that the foundation plans to discuss the building soon. The recent creation of holes in the wall has rekindled concerns, she said.
“We’re not sure where he’s going with this,” Ringer said.
Where the casual observer is reminded of Beirut circa 1982, Eglaston sees a six-unit complex with Wi-Fi and a washer and dryer in every unit, perfect for lobbyists or legislators or state police officers who need a spot to stay in Springfield. The building, he insists, is structurally sound, collapsed roof and hole in wall notwithstanding. He cites a 2012 evaluation by an engineer from Oak Brook who deemed the building sound.
In a court filing, John Sadowski, the city’s planning coordinator, expressed doubts.
“I have substantial concerns about the stability of the building at 715 E. Cook,” Sadowski says in an affidavit filed last November.
Doubts or no, work has proceeded, with the blessing of city building officials who have granted Eglaston a permit to work on rehabilitating the structure that is now on the city’s unsafe and dangerous buildings list. Sadowski noted that the structural engineer hired by Eglaston has said the building is sound, and the city can’t tell a property owner whether fixing something makes economic sense.
“He has the right to make that choice,” Sadowski said.