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Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007 09:07 pm

Saving a block

Properties near Vachel Lindsay Home attract new investor

John Eglaston surveys the side of Fogarty Mansion, where a thief made off with some siding.
Untitled Document When Tim Cunningham tended the yard of the Vachel Lindsay Home, he spotted all sorts of people.
Some days the governor would jog by, security detail in tow; other times panhandlers would accost Cunningham as he mowed the lawn. Working at the Lindsay Home taught Cunningham, a student at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, a lot about the poet and artist who lived at 603 S. Fifth St. It also taught Cunningham much about the neighborhood, among the capital city’s most historic.
“It’s not the best,” he says matter-of-factly. In recent months, empty buildings near the poet’s home — as well as the nearby Executive Mansion — have attracted trouble. Vagrants have stayed in the structures; teens have used the properties as a hangout; a thief made off with siding. Jennie Battles, site administrator of the Lindsay Home, is concerned. “You always worry there might be vandalism, things like that,” she says. The home for which Battles is responsible has been meticulously restored with the use of public funds. So thorough was the restoration, lists that Lindsay’s mother scribbled on walls have been carefully preserved under clear plastic.
It’s not just the Lindsay Home that’s important: “This is truly one of the richest historical neighborhoods in Springfield,” says Battles, an authority on both Vachel Lindsay and the block where he was born and died. The neighborhood is part of Springfield’s Old Aristocracy Hill district. A new city ordinance against panhandling has just gone into effect, but the block between Fourth and Fifth streets, with Edwards Street on the north and Cook Street on the south, still has problems. Battles says that she and her staff must regularly explain to visitors why the adjoining houses and buildings are vacant. Structures neighboring the official governor’s residence and grounds include neatly maintained pre-World War II apartment blocks, boarded-up apartments and mansions, a church, and parking lots. The Lindsay Apartments, 422 E. Edwards St., have a deep entryway that seems to invite vagrants and teenagers. Passersby have reported them there and, at other times, have stepped around broken liquor bottles. John Eglaston, who recently purchased the brick apartment block, found evidence that transients were living in the building. The structure has historical significance: Built in 1911 by Lindsay’s father and home to Dr. Vachel Lindsay’s medical office, it remains largely unchanged.
The property is “distressed,” says Eglaston, a structural engineer and specialist in building rehab who has also purchased two homes on the other side of the Lindsay Home, at 605 and 607 S. Fifth St. All three properties were acquired at the same time for $125,000, according to the Sangamon County Assessor’s Office. Eglaston and Battles refer to the house at 607 S. Fifth as the Fogarty Mansion. Once the home of a Springfield retail boot maker and shoe-store owner, it dates from 1889 and is one of the few large old houses in the area that has never been converted into apartments. It is well documented in the files Battles maintains that Vachel Lindsay’s nieces were regular visitors to the Fogarty Mansion. When Eglaston bought it, at least one vagrant had been living there, too.
John Eglaston’s JULA Properties is headquartered in Darien, near Chicago. The real-estate-investment company represents his second career; he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology, and later he got a master’s in business administration from Chicago’s DePaul University. After a career as a structural engineer, Eglaston decided it was time to realize his dream to work for himself, and own income-producing property.
For about five years, Eglaston acquired and rebuilt rentals in greater Chicago. He likes to feel that he “breathes new life into property, . . . and the property becomes a home.” He had an opportunity to buy and work on a residence in Bloomington-Normal. “It was a very good experience,” he recalls. Then Springfield caught his eye as another downstate city where suitable properties might be found. He looked, as any investor would, for low upfront costs. Distressed properties frequently sell at prices below their fair market value. “Quite frankly,” Eglaston says, “it is a very good investment.”
The three buildings on Old Aristocracy Hill looked good to him. They met two other criteria. First, he asks himself, “Does the property have ‘good bones?’ ” — are they structurally sound? The three buildings he acquired, he says, have those good bones. Buildings already modified from their original purpose — “hacked up,” as Eglaston describes them — often don’t have them. He gives an example: efforts to carve former single-family houses into the maximum number of apartments by putting living space in low-ceilinged basements. Jacking up floors or altering a foundation, in his judgment, usually makes the whole building unsound. The second criterion was the underlying quality of the neighborhood itself, a restatement of the old Realtor adage that location is what matters when property is on the market. “If I’m next door to the governor’s mansion, how bad it could it be?” Eglaston remembers asking himself. The feeling was reinforced by Springfield’s official Web site. The various municipal building and safety codes — mechanical (for heating and ventilation), electrical, plumbing (sewer and water), fire safety — seemed clear and reasonable. Good codes, he says, help eliminate a lot of potential liabilities. Without them, he says, “your tenants may be in jeopardy.”
Finally — and curiously — his interest in the old buildings as investments was supported by the fact that they attracted illegal tenants. “These distressed properties are still attractive enough that vagrants — homeless, street people — would still find sleeping on [or] under the front porch as a more attractive alternative to sleeping on a park bench or in a center somewhere.”
So Eglaston became a Springfield property owner. “I tried to meet the neighbors,” he says. When he did, Battles told him about the historic nature of his new buildings and their block. He hired a local architect, Charles J. Pell of CJP Architects.
Eglaston says he can prepare his own plans and specifications but doesn’t think that he is an expert in “optimizing the floor space.” Moreover, a Springfield architect and his firm would have established links to local building specialists — drywallers, plumbers, and others. A local architect would also be the most expert of guides to applying those municipal building codes. Although Eglaston mentions the possibility of a bed & breakfast in one of his old homes, he still speaks exclusively of residences. People will live in them. Why not consider commercial space for offices or shops? There is currently an abundance of such space for rent or lease in downtown Springfield, but says Carolyn Oxtoby, one of the city center’s leaders in redevelopment and restoration, people in residence, not floor space dedicated to future business, are where a viable neighborhood actually begins. “They’re the driving force,” she says. “Retail follows rooftops.” She notes that the value of properly rehabilitated and restored properties should be the same as the value of brand new ones: “It should compare — apples to apples — with a new building. . . . The bottom line is that it’s possible to do either one. You have to make it financially feasible. Each case is its own case.”
Still, when John Eglaston talks about the speculative nature of his building projects on the block, he is referring to something even bigger than the appreciation of equity, the earning of profits.
“This still is an experiment,” he says. He adds, emphatically, “It’s more tribal knowledge.” Beyond sound rebuilding to those municipal codes, he lists the qualities necessary to a revitalized neighborhood: It will have to be seen by potential residents as having good police and fire protection. There must be access to transportation. Public works — the streets and sewers — must really work. Parks and schools must be available.
Eglaston says he hopes to have work on the Lindsay Apartments completed by Christmas; the other two homes should take 18 months. These likely won’t be his last projects in Springfield.
“I haven’t done [with] building in Springfield,” Eglaston says.

Bud Bartlett, a local writer and former broadcaster, is a regular contributor to Illinois Times. His story about businessman Phillip Wagner’s Lincoln-era checkbooks, “Star ledgers,” appeared in the Oct. 26 edition.

A brief history of the Vachel Lindsay Home
“Prairie troubadour” Vachel Lindsay captured the attention of audiences around the world during early 1900s. He was born on Nov. 10, 1879, and died on Dec. 5, 1931, and both events took place in the Lindsay family home, located at 603 S. Fifth St., across the street from the Illinois Executive Mansion. Lindsay’s father, Thomas, was a physician; his mother, Catherine, was an artist and social reformer. Lindsay was to follow in his father’s footsteps, and after high school he attended Hiram College in Ohio, to study medicine, but he eventually dropped out to attend art schools in Chicago and New York City. In the early 20th century, Lindsay set out on a series of tramps across America. At the conclusion of one of these trips, his poem “General William Booth Enters into Heaven,” a eulogy to the founder of the Salvation Army, was published in Chicago’s Poetry magazine. The poem brought him national attention, and subsequent works garnered international acclaim. Some of his best-known poems include “The Congo” and “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight.”
Lindsay’s family home, now a state historic site, has been restored to depict life in 1917, when Lindsay’s parents still played an active role in community life. Examples of Lindsay’s poetry and art, not a part of the house at that time, have been added to showcase the poet. Regular events at the site include the Saturday Morning Lecture series, which focuses on Springfield during the Lindsays’ prime and second Saturday Poetry in the Parlor, featuring invited guests sharing poetry and observations about the famous poet. — Capital City Visitor 2007/08
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