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Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012 06:28 am

There goes the neighborhood

Finding a new home for historic houses

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In 2008 the Maisenbacher House was moved to Seventh and Jackson to save it from Springfield Clinic expansion.
PHOTO BY GINNY LEE

Buildings are like people. Even when they get too old and decrepit to work, their examples can still teach. Something like 100 buildings from the Lincoln era are thought to still stand in Springfield. Most of them, unfortunately, are houses that, being quite small and much amended by their many owners and in the wrong part of town, are worth little in any real estate market catering to any but the very poor. Neither do they have much historic value in themselves, apart from the Adams House on Clear Lake Avenue and the Judge Taylor House on 12th Street, a capacious two-story residence that later served as a hospital for “fallen women” and their children and then as a private school for African-American children.

Even so, many of these buildings do suggest the period’s building styles and workmanship. Some months back, the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission asked the National Park Service why some of those buldings couldn’t be moved to the Lincoln Home site and put to use, perhaps as one of the new maintenance and storage facilities envisioned in the new plan. I also argued for such a scheme in print. (See “Faithful to the period,” Sept. 2, 2010.) The buildings would have made a fine supporting cast in the story the NPS tries to tell about L’s life in a gentrifying neighborhood. Reusing buildings this way also would be green, it would advance the NPS historic preservation mandate and it probably would save the feds some money.

The NPS nixed the idea. (See “A new old street,” Jan. 19, 2012.) The agency argued that moving Lincoln-era transplants onto the Lincoln Home site would mislead the public. This is nonsense. The NPS plans to build four new replica houses that will be “interpreted” to the public (NPS-speak for “described”) as “exhibits” rather than “authentic reconstructions.” I see no reason why the presence in the site of a transplanted Lincoln-era structure could not be explained the same way.

If the city’s Lincoln-era structures are threatened where they stand, why not move them? Moving historic houses is a sort of architectural and historical witness protection program in which vulnerable structures are removed to places where they can be safe from their enemies. It’s been done many times in Springfield and central Illinois.

The Corneau house that now stands on the southwest corner of the Eighth and Jackson, across from the Lincolns’ house, was threatened with demolition by the 1960s. It was moved immediately north of the home to get it out of harm’s way, then moved again in the 1990s when the National Park Service returned it to its original site. Springfield Preservation, Ltd. moved two houses near the Statehouse that were slated for demolition to West Cook as part of the German Settlers Row project. Most recently, the Maisenbacher House was snatched from the voracious jaws of the Springfield Clinic neighborhood and reinstalled at Seventh and Jackson. Then there is the Iles House, which has changed addresses more often than a deadbeat dad trying to outrun process servers – the southeast corner of Sixth and Cook streets to start, then 1825 S. Fifth and since 1998 its present site on South Seventh at Cook.

In several Illinois towns there is a history village, large park-like grounds to which several buildings of local significance have been moved to form an outdoor museum of local building types, usually managed by the local historical society, often on public land. Stone Coal Log Cabin Village, on the Pana Tri-County Fairgrounds, displays original log buildings from the early Illinois era. The Christian County Historical Society Museum features an 1820 log house, the 1839 Christian County courthouse (where Lincoln argued cases), the one-room Buckeye Schoolhouse from 1856 and the Old Owaneco Depot.

Up north, just this side of the edge of the known world in suburban Chicago, is the Deerfield Historic Village, which consists of five buildings – an 1837 log house that is thought to be the oldest standing building in Lake County, an 1847 log house, an 1854 frame farmhouse and an 1890-era one-room schoolhouse. Out in DuPage County is Naper Settlement, an outdoor history museum on 12 acres of city-owned grounds whose refugees include one of Naperville’s oldest frame houses, a country post office from the 1830s and DuPage County’s oldest church – 30 buildings in all.

Why doesn’t Springfield have a history village? Well, it does, sort of, in the Lincoln Home site.

And while it isn’t hard to image a similar village on the near east side near the new Capitol Avenue, perhaps on land acquired by the city through tax sales, it is hard to imagine the city council voting the money to actually do it. Besides, it’s already mostly too late. Springfield’s first schoolhouse? First church? First general store? All long gone.

That means that most of the Lincoln-era structures not already protected, save perhaps the Taylor house, eventually will end up like Lincoln, dead and buried. There is nothing sadder than a house without a home.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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