Elgin was founded in 1835 when James T. Gifford staked a claim to 383 acres along the east side of the Fox River. Today, the Elgin Historic District consists of a large portion of Gifford’s claim, plus adjacent parcels. The District encompasses the city’s oldest neighborhood. After the Civil War (1861-1865), Elgin transformed from a farm supply town into an industrial city. The Elgin National Watch Company, founded in 1864, was the largest contributor to the transformation. By 1900 the watch factory employed more than 2,000 workers. Adding to the city’s industrial base were more than a dozen milk processing plants, two large publishing houses, plus scores of small and mid-sized factories. Downtown Elgin was a regional center of commerce with retail stores, specialty shops, wholesale suppliers, banks and professional offices.
The foremen and managers of Elgin’s businesses erected large homes, while factory workers built modest cottages. Boardinghouses and apartment buildings were constructed. One half of the homes in the Elgin Historic District today were constructed between 1880 and 1889. A distinctive characteristic of the District was that middle- and upper-class residents lived side by side with factory workers and their families.
The well-being of central city neighborhoods nationwide began to decline after World War II (1941 to 1945). The Great Depression (1930s), followed by wartime shortages, resulted in little new construction. After the war, public tastes favored the new over the old. Urban renewal programs promoted demolition over rehabilitation. Many areas in and near city centers were labeled “blighted.” In these neighborhoods, signs of gradual decline were evident, including deferred maintenance, insensitive remodeling, litter, vandalism, aging urban infrastructure and streets increasingly crowded with automobiles.
By the 1970s, dramatic changes were in evident Elgin’s older neighborhoods. Several large homes were razed and their lots subdivided. Numerous single-family homes were converted to apartments, often with absentee landlords. Middle- and upper-class residents took the equity from their homes, along with their disposable income, and moved to newer housing elsewhere. Reinvestment in the neighborhood waned.
Joining the Gifford Park Association is free and open to anyone who appreciates historic preservation!