In 1979, a group of residents living near the city’s oldest park noticed older neighborhoods were losing their architectural and historic character, as well as overall quality of life and resolved to take action. The Gifford Park Association (GPA), a nonprofit volunteer organization, took its name from that park. With an eye to the future, GPA laid the foundation for preservation efforts in the decades to come. They protected the neighborhood 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 that city government had to play a role. GPA lobbied for a heritage commission, a preservation ordinance, historic district design guidelines, code enforcement and hiring of staff specializing in preservation efforts.
In 1980, GPA, the city and local lending institutions partnered to create Neighborhood Housing Services of Elgin (NHS). Through NHS, residents had access to low-interest home improvement loans, free paint and a tool-lending library. GPA and NHS shared a vision. They wanted to rehab a deteriorating house in a highly visible area. Their strategy was to restore the house and to inspire private investment in the adjacent properties. In 1984 NHS purchased 326 E. Chicago St. for this demonstration project. The transformation was amazing. It not only showed what was possible, it also piqued property owners’ curiosity about architectural treasures that might be hidden within their own homes. In 1990, 326 E. Chicago St. became the first home of an innovative policing strategy to address neighborhood crime. The R.O.P.E. (Resident Officer Program of Elgin) continues to serve that purpose.
In 1982, GPA took another chance by hosting a historic house tour. The risk paid off and 40 years later the annual Historic Elgin House Tour is a widely anticipated event showcasing historic homes and public buildings. The House Tour raises awareness of local history, architecture and older neighborhoods while generating a surge of home restoration in Elgin.
In 1997, GPA instituted the annual “Great Unveiling” 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 took over the program. The city also began an unveiling program for commercial structures downtown with dramatic results.
Between 1985 and 2002, GPA used its income, city grants and bank loans to purchase, rehab and restore five problem properties to single-family use. While these projects were a significant financial burden the impact on the neighborhood was priceless.
Grassroots efforts were greatly enhanced when the Grand Victoria casino opened in 1994. Taxes from the riverboat were used for capital projects – some of which were neighborhood grants and incentives. Two grant programs, among many, became powerful catalysts for preservation and private investment. One 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. By 2016, more than 160 of these grants, totaling over $1.87 million, were awarded in the Elgin Historic District alone. It is estimated that the grants stimulated four times that amount in private investment.
The other significant grant program was for removing apartments that had been added to single-family homes. By 2015, 38 Historic District properties were “de-converted,” resulting in the removal of 77 apartments. These properties often underwent a major rehabilitation in the process, transforming decrepit dwellings into neighborhood showcases. Design guidelines assured that alterations maintain the architectural integrity of the homes.
From the late 1990s onward private investors and Habitat for Humanity assumed an increasingly large role with house rehabs. Habitat undertook a number of projects which were cost prohibitive for others. In 2005 the City acquired several problem properties to de-convert and rehab. This was later augmented by the federally funded Neighborhood Stabilization Program which targeted foreclosed properties.
Today, the City of Elgin has a progressive approach to preservation and has earned 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.
Joining the Gifford Park Association is free and open to anyone who appreciates historic preservation!