The Elgin Historic District contains part of the original plat of Elgin which was laid out in 1842 by James Gifford. Land within the district was completely platted by 1859 with streets laid out in a modified grid pattern. The Elgin Historic District contains an excellent collection of late 19th and early 20th century residential architecture. Located to the east of the downtown area, lots were platted as early as the 1840s.
Construction within this area was limited until after the Civil War. Many of the dwellings were erected during the boom years of the 1880s and 1890s when Elgin prospered as a result of the growth of the Elgin National Watch Company. Between 1879 and 1891, this company grew from 840 to more than 3,000 employees. Many of the company’s foremen and managers built large two-story frame dwellings along the streets in the neighborhood. By 1892, more than 400 buildings had been constructed within the present boundaries of the historic district.
In addition to the homes for the city’s middle and upper class residents, the district was also the home to many of the factory workers and their families. A number of multi-family brick apartment buildings or “flats” were constructed in the district in the 1880s and 1890s. Most of these were built along East Chicago and other streets in the western section of the district. These brick buildings are illustrative of the rapidly urbanizing character of Elgin at the turn of the century.
The west section of the historic district also became the home of several of the city’s most prominent churches. At the northwest corner of Gifford and Fulton Street is St. Mary’s Church, constructed between 1896 and 1899 in the Gothic Revival style. When it was built, this was the most costly church constructed in Elgin. Another prominent church in the district is the Universalist Church at the corner of Villa and DuPage Streets. This brick church was completed in 1892 and was designed to resemble from above a pocket watch enclosed in a case. This church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
Gifford Park is the city’s first public park and it was laid out by James Gifford in his 1844 addition. The park was later enlarged in the 1850s. The park has been an amenity in the district since the mid-19th century and it was landscaped and equipped as a playing area in 1980.
One of the prominent structures in the neighborhood is “Old Main.” The three-story brick building was designed in the Greek Revival style with a large portico on the primary facade and a bell tower at the roof line. This building was completed in 1855-56 as an academy, and served as a school until 1969. Fire damage in 1911 rendered the upper floor unusable. In 1976 a fund drive to restore the building was initiated. Much of the building’s original appearance was restored including the original roof form and bell tower. In 1987, the building opened as a museum operated by the Elgin Area Historical Society.
Although much of the Elgin Historic District was developed by 1900, construction continued well into the early 20th century. Architectural forms such as American Foursquare and Bungalow dwellings were constructed in these years, and by 1930 few vacant lots remained in the area. While originally the neighborhood was made up of a variety of homes with lots that differed in size, the next few decades witnessed many of the large residences being razed and their lots subdivided. The original James T. Gifford estate (bounded by Prairie, Villa, Gifford and Chapel) now accommodates at least 20 residences and is one of the most densely populated areas in the neighborhood (see map, p. 22). In some cases, homes built for single families were replaced by high density developments.
As the local economy declined in the 1960s, some residents found themselves in larger homes than they could afford. With no rules against doing so, many property owners systematically carved their large, single-family homes into apartments, changing the ratio of rental properties in the neighborhood seemingly overnight. To compound the problem, many of these property owners subsequently became absentee landlords to neglected properties.
Despite these intrusions to the historical character of the district, the neighborhood has retained a remarkable collection of 19th and early 20th century dwellings, representing a wide variety of architectural styles. The historical significance of the neighborhood was solidified in 1983 when it was recognized as a federally protected historic district and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
There is a general consensus among long term residents that the neighborhood has improved significantly during the past 25 years, as evidenced by ongoing renovations, generally decreased overcrowding, and heightened awareness of historic value. However, there are isolated areas within the neighborhood where conditions are static or worsening. As there does not appear to be wide spread adherence to housing code regulations – including those resulting from the neighborhood’s designation as a National Historic District – deterioration and ongoing overcrowding is occurring on blocks where conversions and non-owner occupied homes dominate.
The culture of the neighborhood has also changed rapidly in recent years as large numbers of Hispanic individuals – many of whom are non-English speaking – have chosen the Elgin Historic District as their place of residence. Like most neighborhoods, ours is a community of people whose wants and needs vary widely. Tensions exist, in part, because members of the community have differing aspirations for themselves, their families, their homes, and their neighborhood. What remains to be done is to improve the quality of life for all residents, and strengthen the sense of community in this evolving neighborhood.
Joining the Gifford Park Association is free and open to anyone who appreciates historic preservation!