Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014 12:01 am
Restoration begins on historic Taylor House
The Springfield Project envisions east-side community center
It’s been a private residence, a home for fallen women and a technical school for African-American students. As recently as a few months ago, it was slated to become an empty lot. Now, thanks to The Springfield Project, the Taylor House at 902 South 12th St. has a new lease on life as a future community center for Springfield’s east side.
The Taylor House was built as the residence of Judge John Wycliffe Taylor in 1857-58. At that time the property sat on five acres of land east of the Springfield city limits. Ten years later, the house was purchased by local individuals to become the Ulrich Home for Fallen Women. Its purpose was “reclamation of fallen women, from a life of sin and shame, to one of virtue and religion.”
In 1901, the school became the Ambidexter Industrial and Normal Institute for African-American children. Modeled on Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, the Ambidexter Institute’s goal was to provide African-Americans education and training in the skilled trades. The curriculum included classes in domestic science, millinery, dressmaking, plumbing, painting, carpentry, bricklaying, shoemaking and general mechanics, as well as music and elocution. Plagued by fundraising difficulties, the Institute closed its doors in 1908.
This connection to African-American history ultimately motivated preservationists, historians and neighborhood residents to rally to save the home, which had fallen into extreme disrepair and was slated for demolition in 2013. Sue Massie of Massie, Massie & Associates spearheaded the effort to save the home from the wrecking ball, saying that, in light of the house’s history, it was the “right thing to do.” Alderman Gail Simpson and Mayor Mike Houston personally ensured that the house was given a reprieve. With support from the Heritage Foundation, the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln, the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce and the Springfield Black Chamber of Commerce, The Springfield Project signed on to acquire the property and begin the process of renovation and adaptive reuse.
“This is an opportunity to save a property that has significant history in Springfield and is really a landmark as it relates to African-American history and education,” said Tim Rowles, The Springfield Project’s executive director.
The Springfield Project is a nonprofit organization that empowers Springfield’s underserved and minority populations to identify and solve neighborhood problems through collaboration and partnership with various stakeholders. One of TSP’s target areas is the Neighborhood of Hope, a 49-block area bounded by South Grand Avenue, MLK Jr. Boulevard, Cook Street and 11th Street. Within this area, much deteriorated housing has been demolished and readied for new residential infill. The underpinning for this new development will be the established institutions in the area, including schools, churches, historic commercial buildings and now the Taylor House. Interconnecting the neighborhood will be open spaces, parks and green corridors for off-street walking and bicycling, recreation and storm water management.
“We think it’s going to be a big drawing card once we start redeveloping this area,” said Rowles. “Since we own the adjacent lots next to the Taylor House, it’s the perfect jumping-off spot for our green space initiative.”
The extensive grounds of the Taylor House will become a neighborhood park with walkways through the shady lawn, nodes for socializing and a play area for young children.
The Springfield Project will orchestrate the renovation of the Taylor House over a period of two years. The first phase involves removing non-historic materials and additions from the house. Shingle siding removal will be completed, and the exposed original clapboard will be restored and painted. The front porch will be removed and later replaced with a replica of the original smaller porch, and an addition to the house will be removed. Interior renovation and grounds improvement will be done in future phases.
Funding has already been secured through the Community Foundation of the Land of Lincoln to underwrite much of the first phase of renovation. Work on the house’s exterior is already underway; since August the front porch has been removed and the vinyl siding has been stripped away to reveal the original clapboards underneath.
Once completed, the house will be available to organizations for a variety of neighborhood-focused activities. There will be opportunities for exhibits, demonstrations and festivals utilizing the house as well as the outdoor spaces.
Rowles is well aware of the challenges that go along with renovating a building as badly deteriorated as the Taylor House, which was listed as one of the Ten Most Endangered Historic Places in 2004 by Landmarks Illinois. But he is bolstered by his vision of what the house can be, as well as by the enthusiasm of local neighbors, who have embraced the project wholeheartedly.
Yet the project can still use more help. Anyone who is interested in donating time, energy or financial support to the project is encouraged to contact Rowles at 217-753-3551 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The renovation of the Taylor House will be a catalyst for improvement of the surrounding neighborhood, one of Springfield’s most blighted, said Massie. “It is hoped that others too will offer support as time goes on. This is an opportunity for individuals, organizations and businesses to come together for the greater good of the city.”
Erika Holst is a writer, historian and Curator of Collections at the Springfield Art Association.