Arcola man restoring beauty, history

Wilmer Otto might be coordinating the first-ever "facial transplant" of a historic facade onto a building he owns in Arcola, but don't be deceived.

For Otto, there's nothing superficial about the beauty of restoring the stamped-tin facade. It's a way for him to preserve the past and raise historical awareness – a major goal in his many restoration projects.

"I'm hopeful it will help awaken other communities to the value of the really grand buildings they may have on their own Main Street," Otto said.

The facade, manufactured by the Mesker Brothers in St. Louis, was taken from a condemned building in Stewardson, near Effingham. Its stamped-tin window hoods, decorative cornices and cast-iron nameplate were removed last year in hundreds of pieces. Otto is having them repaired and hopes to mount them this fall onto a building in the 100 block of East Main Street in Arcola.

The building, where Hugh Cunningham sold women's clothing for years, originally had a Mesker facade. But when fire damaged the building in 1942, Cunningham opted for a more modern facade – one that included aluminum siding, said Cunningham's grandson, Pat Monahan.

"It was real flashy for the time," said Monahan, who is also Arcola's economic development director.

When Otto decided to restore the building, he contacted Anna Margaret Borntrager at the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency for suggestions. Borntrager recognized the building's original facade as a Mesker, manufactured by one of two companies owned by brothers. But Borntrager told Otto the facades no longer were readily available.

Then, about two weeks later, the agency learned about the Mesker facade in Stewardson. Otto paid $10 for the facade, as well as for the cost of blasting it with walnut hulls – sand would be too harsh – and hiring Amish tinsmith Larry Miller to repair and even re-create some of the pieces. He'll pay a local carpenter to attach the pieces to a wooden frame on the building's front.

Darius Bryjka, who also works at the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, said the facade transplant is unprecedented, especially because of its historical importance.

"Ultimately, Wilmer is saving this building, which is representative of thousands across Illinois," Bryjka said. "We have not heard of a project like this before, and we're thrilled to be part of it."

And this approach – preserving something for the benefit of others – is evident in his other projects and businesses. He's restored several buildings in downtown Arcola and also sells used farm equipment in Eastern Europe, where farmers struggle to find the technology they need. His business there led him to buy and begin restoring three buildings in Sighisoara, Romania.

Restoration satisfies Otto's love of the past. Though he's a businessman – he owns a real estate company in Arcola and several tractor dealerships in the area – he studied history at Temple University in Philadelphia and at Eastern Mennonite College in Virginia. Otto grew up Amish until he was 10. His parents left the faith, so he was allowed to continue his education past eighth grade, which is when Amish children finish school.

"I thought business was boring," Otto said. "I'm a practical businessman. I find old buildings and find adaptive reuse for them."

That means restoring a building to its original outward appearance but making it usable for the needs of modern businesses.

Otto's first Arcola restoration project was the Arcola Emporium, in which Otto created an open atrium.

"To my surprise, it worked," Otto said. "We created a usable marketable space" for six businesses inside the building.

Since that initial 1980 project, Otto also restored a former hotel building downtown. Arcola planned to tear it down for a parking lot, which would have cost $65,000. Otto offered to restore the building if the city chipped in $40,000, and today, it houses a gift and antique store. Otto says he'd like to turn it into a bed-and-breakfast hotel if Arcola tourism continues to thrive. He's also restored his own real estate office, the building that houses Arcola's Amish Interpretive Center and a former Marathon station.

These efforts are crucial to Arcola, Pat Monahan said.

"I think the town's heritage, preserving the look ... is essential to the identity of a town," he said. "Arcola's very lucky to have, basically, a full downtown."

And like its downtown, Monahan said, Arcola's also lucky to have Otto.

"I love what Wilmer's done, and I think he's been a super asset to our community," he said. "I don't know what he's going to do after this. I don't know any other buildings that need work."

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