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Thursday, April 8, 2004 03:46 am

To the rescue

Jerry Jacobson’s uphill battle to preserve Springfield’s heritage


Jerry Jacobson enters the battered old mansion at 12th Street and Cass Avenue through a makeshift side door of bent nails and corkboard. He drops his head and stoops low, steps up over piles of broken rubble and caked mud, then unfolds his lanky body in an expansive kitchen dating back to the days of Lincoln.

Once inside, he treads softly, stopping to shine a flashlight on one of the home's five original fireplaces and mantels. He notes its "lightning bolt" design, similar to the decorative woodwork found in Springfield's oldest remaining structure, the 1820s-era Elijah Iles House.

Jacobson passes through a doorway, then pauses before ascending to the second floor. "My lovely winding wooden stairwell," he gushes, pointing out that every original spindle but one remains.

"Listen," he says, while climbing. "The stairs don't even creak. Isn't that amazing?"

Jacobson's zeal quickly erodes as he enters an adjacent room where shards of glass crunch under the weight of his feet.

"These things can remain intact for 150 years," he says, seething. "Then some kids start throwing rocks."

Though referring to neighborhood vandals, known to pelt the abandoned home with bricks and scrawl graffiti on its interior walls, Jacobson might as well be venting at the once-prevailing attitude of city officials.

His brawls with the city of Springfield over historic-preservation efforts are the stuff of urban folklore. His activism raised the ire of several local aldermen; the daily newspaper depicted him as a preservation-crazy buffoon.

"For years Jerry's been a burr under the city's saddle," says developer Carolyn Oxtoby, who has rehabbed a number of Lincoln-era buildings in the historic downtown district.

To his credit, Jacobson played a leading role in advocating the preservation of the neoclassical Waterways Building at Second and Capitol streets. He also helped save the cluster of Lincoln-era buildings on West Cook Street known as German Settlers Row, as well as a wooden horse barn on the Illinois State Fairgrounds that dates to 1912.

But Jacobson has often stood alone in advocating for buildings in dire disrepair and with no aesthetic values, causing even some supporters to regard him as a patron saint of hopeless causes.

For instance, in 1991 he rallied to rescue the Bunn Warehouse, long an eyesore at 10th and Adams streets, though its rehab would have cost millions and the owner wanted it demolished. Jacobson lost that fight.

He further alienated himself in 1997 by attempting to get the John Hay Homes public-housing project on the National Register of Historic Places.

Whereas most people saw the Hay Homes as a testament to racial discrimination and urban warfare, Jacobson saw a monument to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal programs. He lost that battle, too.

"We've lost a lot more than we've won," he admits with a shrug.

But after a quarter-century in the role of Springfield's unofficial preservation gadfly, Jacobson is donning a new hat.

For the first time, he is attempting to undertake the actual historic restoration of a local building, sticking it to opponents who have long challenged him to put his money where his mouth is.

Jacobson has pumped thousands of dollars into stabilizing the 1857 Judge Taylor House, 902 S. 12th St., which is considered the largest unrestored pre-Civil War residential building in Springfield.

He has already retained an architect and contractor and paid laborers out of his pocket, though he doesn't even own the structure and is battling the city for control of the property.

"I don't play golf, I don't drink, I don't run around," he says. "Preservation is my thing."

Though unremarkable from the outside, the two-story Federal-style structure retains many of its interior features, including the staircase and woodwork, as well as the original wainscoting, set beneath glass panes dating to the mid-19th century.

The building boasts a colorful, progressive history with many incarnations, starting with its first resident, John Wickliffe Taylor, a farmer elected in 1852 as chief judge of what was then the equivalent of today's Sangamon County Board.

Less than two decades later, in 1869, the home was converted into a hospital for "fallen women" and "children born out of wedlock." Jacobson uncovered the trust deed for that conversion in the Lincoln Library's Sangamon Valley Collection, which reports that the institution's aim was to reclaim women "from a life of sin and shame to one of virtue and religion."

In 1893, the building's use changed again, from a hospital to a school for African-American children known as the Ambidexter School. Over the years the building received three additions, and in the mid-1970s it was partitioned into five apartments.

For some two decades, the Judge Taylor Home severely deteriorated along with the health of its owner, Springfield native Lloyd Lyons. After Lyons' death, ownership of the building went to his estate, run by his children, some of whom continue to live in the area.

City inspectors arrived in February 2002 with a litany of code violations, citing a dislodged roof, collapsed ceilings, and structural beams eaten away by termites. The estate claimed to have no funds and forfeited the house to the city, which filed a complaint in Sangamon County Circuit Court for demolition and later retained a demolition contractor to raze it.

But in swooped Jacobson, who has since recruited volunteers to help patch the roof and rebuild the home's foundation in a last-ditch attempt to fend off the city's wrecking ball.

Jacobson says the city has not objected to his work on the building and has supplied him with the necessary building permits.

"We don't plan to stop working until the place is reopened," says laborer Tom "Ted" Day, a neighbor and friend of Lyons' who has devoted hours to making repairs.

Though Jacobson hopes to gain ownership of the building, there is no guarantee he will be successful. Ernie Slottag, spokesman for Mayor Tim Davlin, says he cannot discuss the current status of the structure because it is in litigation.

Unlike similar efforts downtown, Jacobson's quest will reap no benefit from a tax-increment-financing district. Instead, he must rely solely on bank loans and historic tax credits to fund the rehab at a projected cost of $150,000.

It's not lost on him that the property sits in a high-crime area on the East Side, where much of the city's gun violence occurs.

Some community leaders, including developer Michael Pittman, hope Jacobson's rehab effort initiates a revitalization of the blighted area.

"He could inspire some other people on the block to fix up their own properties," says Pittman, who has constructed several new office and commercial buildings along South 11th Street. "It would most definitely bring a sense of pride to that neighborhood."

Jacobson, who hopes to reopen the house to low-income renters, attributes his decision to gamble on the Judge Taylor House on two seemingly uncontrollable factors: a fascination with history and an innate stubbornness.

"It's my aversion to waste," he explains. "I'm kind of a cheap person and hate to see things of value go to waste, be it aluminum cans or historic buildings."

A native New Yorker who studied anthropology and archaeology at Columbia University, Jacobson moved his family to Springfield in 1980 to take a job as archaeological supervisor with the Illinois State Museum. A few months later, he initiated a survey to identify what Lincoln-era homes remained in the area.

"When I learned no such list of buildings existed, I decided we should make one," he says.

He did this by determining Springfield's boundaries in 1860 and superimposing 19th-century sketches of aerial views of the city onto modern maps. A few dozen volunteers were then recruited to go block by block, surveying the city for historic homes.

A couple hundred buildings were identified, and the survey continues to be a resource for preservationists.

"At the time, there was no other organized advocacy group for historic properties," says Jacobson.

He continued his advocacy work after leaving the library to work for the Illinois Department of Transportation, from which he recently retired after 18 years. He co-founded the Historic Preservation Association of Springfield, which disbanded in the 1990s, and now runs a nonprofit advocacy organization called Save Old Springfield, of which he is the lone member.

Last month, the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois honored Jacobson's Save Old Springfield by naming the Judge Taylor House to its annual list of the 10 most endangered historic places in Illinois.

"It's because of Jerry Jacobson that this very significant building is still standing," says the council's director, David Bahlman.

Although the designation does not ensure the house's rehabilitation, it may help raise awareness and funding. According to Bahlman, during the last decade just 13 of the 91 buildings spotlighted by the council have since been demolished.

Local buildings that made the list have met varying fates.

For instance, the Chatterton's Block, on the west side of the Old Capitol Square, which was named to the council's list in 1996, has since been restored, whereas the 19th-century Ferguson House, on North Fifth Street, was demolished in 1997 by the Springfield Art Association despite the council's designation.

The State Journal-Register has also gotten behind Jacobson lately, praising his work to rescue the Judge Taylor Home in an editorial published on Dec. 23, 2002.

The paper's endorsement marked a departure from its previously dismissive attitude toward Jacobson. For more than a decade, starting back in the mid-1980s, the SJ-R's editorial writers referred to Jacobson's efforts as a "phobia, where everything old is considered worthy of preservation."

The SJ-R editorial page often lampooned Jacobson personally and opposed many of his efforts on the grounds that property rights should take precedence over historic preservation. According to an editorial published in 1989, "Jacobson and his preservationists ... have a tendency to regard anything that dates back to the early 20th or 19th century as worth saving."

Jacobson responded in a wistful letter published a week later: "Such public service might elicit a verbal pat on the back from a community newspaper rather than your editorial's kick in the heart."

Over the years Jacobson has clipped many of these published exchanges; now he pores over them at the dining-room table in his home, located behind White Oaks Mall.

"I was the new kid, making waves," says Jacobson.

Springfield historian Ed Russo, a member of the city's Historic Sites Commission, remembers Jacobson's high-profile battles.

"People laughed up their sleeves at Jerry, saying, 'Who is this outsider, and how dare he tell us locals what to do?'" Russo says.

"Some places, and Springfield may be one of them, require you to live there a lifetime before you can finally be believed."

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