All about prairie conservation efforts in Central Illinois

Feb 14, 2009

From the archive: To Save or Demolish

This is one of the many articles contributed by the Prairie Monk for publication in the WEFT Revue. It appears on this blog as part of an ongoing project to archive Monk's writings and make them more accessible to the community.

To Save or Demolish: That is the Question

It revolves round every preservation effort

Recently a News-Gazette antiquer’s column by Bob Swisher, Jan. 1, 2005, raised that very question.

To Save: Swisher gave accolades to the Greek Revival Cottage in Urbana, which is now the Urbana Park District Headquarters, as an example of a valuable preservation and functional re-use building.

Or Demolish: Swisher gives a counterpart thumbs down to the Pepsin Factory in Monticello as an example of a building that should be demolished and replaced with a mall that is the local desire.

Let’s look at these two sites.

The Greek Revival Cottage

Historically the Greek Revival Cottage was the “Little Dome House” which was across from Uni-High on Springfield Ave. It had been skidded across the snow from Urbana to be relocated as a rental house when the owner became affluent enough to build a bigger and better house. The cottage was originally located somewhere in the vicinity of Broadway in Urbana, where there are similar cottages.

The cottage had a Greek revival porch and dado that indicated that its owner had a reasonable degree of architectural sophistication when he came here in the early 1870s. The owner came from Urbana in Champaign County, Ohio, as did many other local settlers. The train-shipped cottage was located in the hinterlands between Urbana and Champaign on a rise overlooking a swampy Boneyard Creek. It faced Bloomington Road, which was the main drag to Bloomington in its day. Later the road would be renamed Springfield Ave. Around the turn of the century the “cottage” was surrounded by three story houses and the cottage became known as the “Little Dome House” after the family who lived there for many years and because it was obviously smaller than its street mates.

By the 1980s, the cottage was known as the “Saw Sharpener’s House” in reference to the occupation of the owner. The Saw Sharpener died, and the building was bought by the University for a parking lot. The University did not want the building and agreed to hand it over to the Champaign County Historical Museum. The Urbana Park District offered it a home at Leal Park.

With the support of many, including Education II (an Urbana Alternative School), the Champaign County Historical Museum, the Urbana Park District, the Preservation and Conservation Association and others, and to the amazement of others, the house was trundled down Springfield Ave. on aircraft bogies, per courtesy of house mover Gensil and his family, with tugs and jacks and chains. The building was then moved up Wright Street to University and east past Carle Hospital to Leal Park (which was once a Busey Family Cemetery that was closed in 1906).

A basement had been dug to provide for interpretive programs and the storage of historic artifacts. The cottage was moved gently across the excavation site on a trestle of ties and lowered into place on a previously constructed basement wall.

A few bones were dug up during the process of basement construction, and that was of concern, because there are two native Indians buried in that cemetery and it is a federal offense to exhume such graves. An archeological dig was organized by Tom Riley and students of the U of I Archeology Department, and it was revealed that the bones came from a body that was formally shrouded and Caucasian. The bones were archived with the university.

Bob Swisher, in his writings, went on to say that twenty-five years ago he was the only board member of PACA (Preservation and Conservation Association) to have voted against the relocation and functional re-use proposal.

In retrospect, he is not proud of his vote. He now feels that the $85,000 in real and in-kind services that PACA, put into the project was well spent and in fact a wise decision.

The Pepsin Factory

On the other hand, Swisher considers the Pepsin Factory in Monticello a lost cause. It is time to move on. The building has holes in the roof, it is in poor condition, and besides, the real estate space is needed for a shopping center.

Editorially, I have to say that the above point of view is a popular assessment of the Pepsin Factory situation. Others tend to disagree. The building has viability even if run down.

For those who aren’t familiar with the factory, the Pepsin Factory was the font of an outstanding local Monticello enterprise. A Dr. Caldwell formulated a hugely successful laxative that included the use of the enzyme pepsin, which aids in the breakdown of polypeptide chains in food and therefore can be a useful purgative. Dr. Caldwell produced his “Syrup of Pepsin” in a storefront on the Monticello Square. He extracted the pepsin, from boiled up senna leaves, with the aid of an apple cider press and added a little alcohol, sugar and a few other ingredients. The result was an elixir that was superior to other period treatments such as bicarbonate of soda and mustard, which were both harsh. The Syrup sold so well that Dr. Caldwell’s entrepreneurial friends asked to produce the product commercially. Dr. Caldwell agreed. He didn’t want to be involved in the business but he was willing to allow the use of his name.

Very shortly the business partners moved into a nearby Piatt family cottage near the Square, which was eventually expanded to a factory that employed 250 people. There was a railroad spur, and the product was being shipped around the world. During that time, the Pepsin factory contributed greatly to the wealth and well-being of Monticello.

As is often the case with this type of enterprise, there is an active first and second generation of entrepreneurs, but by the third generation the interested parties have either gotten more sophisticated and moved on or lost some of their steam. In time, the factory was sold to a multinational, the Bayer Drug Company, and they added several additional pharmaceutical manufacturing lines. The factory continued to contribute to the community.

By the mid 1980s the factory was becoming obsolete, possibly because batch processing (where the raw products were lifted to the top of the four story factory and processed down) may have been converting to continuous processing technologies.

In any case the products were farmed out to other factories, and the building was donated to Developmental Services in Champaign. The factory was too far from Developmental Services clients, so the factory was sold to a restaurant equipment company, which occupied most of the building for the next fifteen years.

Heartland Pathways, a prairie preservation group, attempted to use the building as a prairie preservation and restoration site, but the building was too wet and cold and cumbersome for such an operation. Heartland Pathways did use the building for the storage of its prairie preservation field equipment. By default, Heartland Pathways also became building stewards for ten years. So Heartland Pathways has a closer acquaintance with the building than most anyone in Monticello, except those who worked there, and that was a long time ago.

Eventually the City purchased the building with a view to tearing it down and replacing it with a mall. Not much consideration was given to preservation and functional re-use or its relationship to Monticello’s history. There were some attempts but they largely did not involve well-known factory and historic re-use specialists.

The City of Monticello acquired the building in April 2004 and almost immediately voted to demolish it.

The State Historical Preservation Agency was asked to provide support money for mitigation (the removal of lead and asbestos) and demolition. The State was compliant but said “Wait. We are provided money by the Federal Government to help with such sites, but with the proviso that we, the State, must be convinced that this is not a valuable ‘greyfield’ or ‘historic site’ that should be preserved.”

“Greyfields,” for the uninitiated, is a term applied to old factories and large buildings that often have historical and functional re-use potential which is often beyond the finances and planning potential of the communities where they are located. Greyfields are sometimes confused with “Brownfields,” which are environmentally hazardous sites. The Pepsin Factory is partly both, but significantly a greyfield.

Greyfields are mostly conceptualized and financed by state, federal and private agencies because they are mostly beyond the scope of small communities that have other more pressing and pragmatic needs and interests. That is why State and Federal Governments have been mandated to see that such buildings are not removed before they have been adequately assessed for their historic and functional re-use potential.

State and Federal agencies also have a commitment to greyfield communities to ensure that the public has had an adequate chance to consider preservation.

It takes money and research energy to develop a plan for the preservation of a greyfield, to explain that plan to the public, and to suggest possible financing. In this situation the state and federal authorities have given historic preservation agencies the plebiscite and support money to encourage historic preservation and functional re-use. This is the will of the elected government bodies, and the money is provided for that purpose, although that is not always understood.

But for the state and federal authorities to do something significant, they must have at least sense a nominal complicity and interest at the community level, and that is not always forthcoming.

In all this preservation debate it must be realized that the state and federal input being criticized can be avoided if the community chooses to use its own tax base to remove its buildings. In the case of the Pepsin Factory the State was asked for support. One problem is that the community often does not have the finance to mitigate chemicals and remove a huge building.

The State responded positively but it also enumerated the provisos.

The first question was “Have you held adequate public hearings?” The answer was “No”, so a public hearing was held, but the hearing was very simplistic and not one that was designed to encourage community preservation interests. It was mostly a case of ”take the sucker down” with no real time for preservationists to present a reasoned case.

Secondly, the State made site visits and gathered local information. The State then took the necessary time to make its assessments, which were more oriented to site preservation than the City of Monticello wanted to entertain.

The state is well aware that there are comparable greyfields in the US and around the world that have been successfully preserved, and that it is their mandated responsibility to research particular sites, in respect of what is known about successful greyfields elsewhere and how these experiences might apply to the Pepsin site.

The State is also aware that the demolition of a large factory like the Pepsin Factory and the building of its replacement can expend a huge amount of energy, which is in short supply and a controversial issue at this time. That question may not be a preservation mandate, but it is certainly a political issue.

The State has requested the retention of the early Piatt family house as a central feature of the factory, and the preservation of a 1919 building that is in reasonably restorable condition. It has also requested a two-year moratorium on demolition while other alternatives are investigated.

The delay does not sit well with the City of Monticello, nor with Bob Swisher and salvage interests. There is at least some tangible finance in the scrap.

But Monticello also gets, and stands to get, quite a lot of its income from tourism, and that potential income has to be balanced against the immediate advantages of salvage or demolition. Other communities have done well with greyfields and have developed an enviable tourist trade. Tourism does not do well in a sterile environment. There have to be features of interest, and the Pepsin factory is one.

Such projects need a regional, state and federal complicity, with financing as a major issue. But for the State to engage in meaningful preservation discussions, it must also have the complicity and understanding and enthusiastic interest of the local communities involved, and that may well go beyond the jurisdiction of one community. The growth and evolution of that complicity is what makes a greyfield work, and it takes time.

Swisher berates the State for delaying. He also criticizes the preservationists who want to see the building functionally reused as a monument to the industry that brought Monticello much of its wealth around the turn of the century, and as a part of the living history success story.

He is critical of one commercial attempt made by Jeff Miller to contract development of the site. He is also critical of attempts to envision state and federal funding, which would not come quickly or easily.

Now Swisher holds preservationists responsible for the demise of another historic building, the recently retired Piatt County jail, which came up for demolition discussion recently. In this case the County Board “did not want the specter of another old building standing round empty while preservationists worked to save it”! As a result, and over the objections of a small group of preservationists and genuine community interests, the County Board voted unanimously to demolish the jail. At once the building was vacated for a new jail.

Non-preservationists often find it expedient to get rid of preservation “problems” before the problems elicit too many questions. To that end the Board decided to use its own tax money to demolish the building. In this way it avoided the State Historic Agency and its historic assessment, even though the Piatt County goal was a historic site of note, and one of the two oldest jails still in use in the State till recently. The key was to use County money and not be dependent on the State or Federal support money that comes with preservation strings.

Now, ipso facto, the Pepsin factory preservationists are being held responsible for the quick demise of a jail that many people thought was an attractive historic site and a potential tourist feature with ambiance and stories.

What Swisher doesn’t seem to realize is that the same “ugly duckling” preservationists who are the subject of his Pepsin Factory diatribe are the same “ugly ducklings” that faced the same anti Greek Revival Cottage preservationists that he now applauds some twenty-five years later.

Perhaps if the Pepsin Factory is preserved there will be a similar turnaround and accolade, in a future antique column, with a thank-you to the preservationists, including the State, who see historic and commercial value in the Pepsin factory.

In this difficult milieu, the State and Federal authorities who attempt to save greyfield sites should be congratulated, because these sites give character to the country and act as a tourist attraction for the region.

The Pepsin story is typical of turn-of-the-twentieth-century entrepreneurship. The story should be told, but the story loses its impact if the key building is removed. Other countries do a lot to preserve the dignity of their built landscapes, and we should do likewise.

Greyfields are successful. They can provide space for art colonies, community activities, penthouse apartments and in-house historical interpretation.

What can you do?

To the individual reader who wants to know how to help, I would say: Be aware of the old buildings that you like, and develop an understanding of them. Then, some time before the wrecking ball appears, be prepared to speak on their behalf and make suggestions as to how they might be functionally reused. It is happening in communities like downtown Champaign all the time, with smaller buildings especially, and it utilizes a lot of creative construction, horse sense, and imagination.

The Enterprise Building on the corner of Walnut and Main recently got Champaign City Tax Increment Financing support, as have many other buildings in the City. We are not divested of being able to save old buildings and converting to interesting human businesses and habitats. On the other hand, we recently lost the Burnham Hospital after years and years of abortive attempts to functionally re-use the buildings. Sometimes it is a matter of brownfield concerns such as asbestos and lead, but sometimes those hazards can be capped and handled effectively. It is the greyfields that are the biggest challenge, and there, to a large extent, we are dependent on state and federal assessment and support.

Dave Monk

—The WEFT Revue, Vol. 14 Issue 1: Jan.-Feb. 2005, p.6.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Is it to late to save the Monticello building?