Progress Through Preservation

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Progress Through Preservation:

Renaissance of the Neighborhood


About This Booklet

This booklet was specially produced in 2011 for our 30th anniversary of the Housewalk. This displays what GPA has accomplished in our neighborhood in 30 years. It is quite impressive. GPA is proud of what we have accomplished in this time frame, and we encourage neighbors and new people to be a part of the next 30 years of improvements in our neighborhood. It is a lengthy article, so when you have time, please read through it:


Elgin began in 1835 when James T. Gifford staked a claim to 383 acres on the east side of the Fox River. The area now known as the Elgin Historic District was platted between 1842 and 1859, with some lots being further subdivided later. Before the Civil War, building was largely confined to the western end of the district in areas near downtown. The Elgin National Watch Company was founded in 1864. The company’s success in the 1870s and 1880s spurred economic development in Elgin and began transforming the little town into a small city. By 1900 the watch factory employed more than 2,000 workers. More than a dozen dairies, two large publishing houses and many other small and mid- sized factories had also opened. Elgin evolved into a commercial center as retail stores, wholesale suppliers, banks and professional offices filled the central business district. Residential construction spread throughout the district.

The foremen and managers of Elgin’s businesses erected large homes, while factory workers built modest cottages. Boarding houses and brick apartment buildings were constructed. One half of the homes in the Elgin Historic District today were constructed between 1880 and 1889. By 1929, very few lots remained vacant. A distinctive characteristic of the neighborhood 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 noticeably after World War II (1941 to 1945). The Great Depression of the 1930s, followed by wartime shortages, led to a decade and a half of stagnation in housing. After the war, public tastes favored the new over the old. This trend was reinforced by urban renewal programs that favored demolition over rehabilitation. The term “blighted” was used to describe many areas in and near city centers. In adjacent 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, Elgin’s oldest neighborhood suffered from most of these ills. Dramatic changes were evident — none of them positive. Stately mansions had been razed and their lots subdivided. High-density developments had replaced some of them. Numerous single-family homes had been converted to apartments, and many of these were now the property of absentee landlords. As the number of rental units increased, the neighborhood population grew while the investment of those living there diminished. 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.

Preservation establishes a foothold

The story of Old Main encapsulates the passion and the dedication of the emerging preservation movement in Elgin in the 1970s. When erected in 1856, the original schoolhouse on the Elgin Academy campus was a stately Greek Revival-style building. However, by 1969 Old Main was an ominous-looking white elephant which had been abandoned by the Academy in favor of a new classroom building. Decades of deferred maintenance, aging mechanical systems and increasingly stringent life safety codes were more than the school could contend with on its tight budget. The school’s administration wanted to raze the old structure. In the face of formidable challenges, a small cadre of citizens interested in adaptive reuse of the building as a museum mobilized enormous effort to make that happen. Endorsement from elected officials as well as public support was needed. Financial support from both private donors and corporate sponsors was essential. Volunteer labor was critical. Fund raising began in 1976. The project was more expensive and larger in scope than anyone anticipated. The effort took more than a decade to complete — with many “hoops” along the way that the organizers barely passed through. Ultimately, they succeeded. The historic landmark stands today as a testament to those preservation pioneers.

In the near vicinity, another grass roots effort was afoot. In 1974, the Eastside Neighbors, the city’s first neighborhood association, was formed. Their “turf” was a wide swath of the city east of the Fox River and south of Summit Street. Before fading away, the group’s advocacy for the older neighborhoods, coupled with hands-on projects to beautify the area, served to inspire others.

By 1979 the neighborhood was at serious risk. Its architecture and historical character were vanishing. As a group of neighbors sat on a porch overlooking Elgin’s oldest park observing gang recruiting, they resolved to save their neighborhood before it was too late. They created a nonprofit volunteer group and called themselves the Gifford Park Association (GPA). With an eye to the future, the founders of GPA laid the foundation for successful preservation efforts for decades to come. They protected the neighbor-hood by having it designated as a local historic district (1981) and listing it on the National Register of Historic Places (1983). Most importantly, they understood the need for a city-sanctioned infrastructure to protect and preserve Elgin’s historic resources. Members lobbied aggressively for a heritage commission, a preservation ordinance, historic district design guidelines, code enforcement and the hiring of specialized city staff dedicated to these efforts.

In 1980, GPA, the city and local lending institutions took advantage of a national program and partnered to create Neighborhood Housing Services of Elgin (NHS). Through NHS, the community had access to low-interest home improvement loans, free paint and a large tool- lending library. Several GPA members served on the NHS board of directors. GPA and NHS shared the vision of rehabbing a severely distressed house in a highly visible area as a demonstration project. The strategy was to stabilize a location and to inspire private investment in the properties adjacent to it. In 1984, NHS purchased an unsightly house at 326 E. Chicago St. for this purpose. The dramatic transformation of this property amazed everyone. The result created an expansive, new vision of what was possible. It also piqued property owners’ curiosity about the architectural treasures that might be hidden beneath the altered façades of their own homes. In 1990, a house was needed for an innovative community policing strategy to address neighborhood crime, 326 E. Chicago became the first R.O.P.E. (Resident Officer Program of Elgin) house. The home continues to serve that purpose.

In 1981, GPA members took a leap of faith and hosted a historic house tour of their troubled neighborhood. The tour was a strategic effort to promote Elgin’s architectural treasures and to educate the public about them. Their risk paid off, and 30 years later The Annual Historic Elgin House Tour is a widely anticipated event showcasing historic homes and public buildings in Elgin’s older neighborhoods. The House Tour raises awareness of local history, educates people about architectural styles and has generated an enduring surge of old-house restoration throughout Elgin. About one-half of tour-goers are from the greater Chicago area and adjacent states — some of whom return to Elgin to purchase old homes.

Since 1983, GPA has hosted more than 70 architectural salvages throughout the Elgin area. Profits are often split with the host neighborhood or the salvage-property owners. These salvages make available authentic and hard-to-find restoration materials, rescue treasures from the landfill and reinforce the value of recycling old house parts. Proceeds from the salvages and the House Tour have provided the funds that GPA uses to leverage significant neighborhood projects, and support other non profits with cash donations

Between 1985 and 2002, GPA used House Tour proceeds, City of Elgin grant programs and bank loans to purchase, rehab and restore five problem properties to single-family use. One of these was in collaboration with NHS. While these projects were a significant financial burden to GPA and a drain on the volunteers, the impact on the neighborhood was priceless. NHS also completed additional purchase/rehab projects in the neighborhood and elsewhere in Elgin.

In 1997, GPA instituted the annual “Great Unveiling,” inspired by a similar program in Rock Island, Illinois. To encourage homeowners to remove substitute siding and restore the original façades of their historic homes, GPA offered volunteer labor and $1,000 in cash to help with subsequent painting and repair. Encouraged by the results, the City of Elgin developed a year-round program for unveiling homes. The city also initiated an unveiling program for commercial structures in the central business district with dramatic results.

The momentum of rehabilitation

Grass roots efforts were rewarded and greatly enhanced when the City of Elgin’s efforts to attract a riverboat casino began to pay off in 1994, and new revenue flowed into municipal coffers. The legislation allowing riverboat gambling was intended to encourage reinvestment and economic development in the host communities. Elgin’s leaders wisely chose to use the new money for capital projects — some of which was reinvested in the neighborhood in the form of grants and other incentives.

Two types of grant programs, among many, became powerful catalysts for preservation and private investment. One type encouraged exterior rehabilitations to replace missing architectural details, such as porches, decorative trim, original siding, windows, etc. Grant recipients were required to match or exceed the grant amounts. A variation of the grant program for low-income families required a minimum 25 percent match. By 2010, more than 140 of these grants, totaling over $1.4 million, were awarded in the Elgin Historic District. It is estimated that the private investment spurred by these grants was four times that.

The other grant program to make a significant impact on the neighborhood was for removing apartments that had been inappropriately added to single-family homes. By 2010, 38 properties were “de-converted,” resulting in the removal of 77 apartments. These properties often underwent a major rehabilitation in the process, transforming many decrepit dwellings into neighborhood showcases. With this increased capital investment in the neighborhood came an increase in private spending, as homeowners continued to upgrade their properties at their own expense. Design guidelines and a formal review and approval process are in place to assure that alterations maintain the architectural integrity of the homes in all of Elgin’s historic districts. In 2005, the City of Elgin established a Residential Acquisition Program to purchase, de-convert and rehab particularly problematic old homes. This program was inspired by GPA’s Purchase/Rehab Program. It has since been augmented by the federally funded Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which targets foreclosed properties

A perspective

In 2011, as you walk the streets of the neighborhood, there is evidence of the economic decline that is plaguing the nation. Vacant homes and “for sale” signs are more common. Deferred maintenance and neglect are apparent in places. However, there is also evidence of ongoing investment. The extensive replacement of streets and sidewalks and the arcane infrastructure that lies beneath them is a long-term project in process. Ambitious rehab projects in progress can still be found throughout the neighborhood. Centuries-old trees that are now dying are being replaced. More trees are being planted as streetscape improvements. The Elgin Historic District continues to be a neighborhood with a diverse housing stock, where diverse residents live side by side. Preservation activities have helped retain a mix of homes at several price points — most of which are affordable relative to those in other communities. Perhaps most importantly, it is a neighborhood. People know each other.

The Gifford Park Association is proud of its role in the neighborhood. When the grass roots movement for preservation began in Elgin, many city officials were as much in need of education about Elgin’s historic resources as the general public was. The early efforts of GPA were often in conflict with the goals of the city. Today, the City of Elgin has a progressive approach to preservation and has gained national recognition for its initiatives. We are fortunate that unlike many cities of comparable age, the City of Elgin has chosen to repair, rebuild and re-invest in one of its most precious assets — the old neighborhoods.