140-year-old Solon House is up for auction

This is not your typical fixer-upper. The average home wasn't built in 1867 in a booming post-Civil War economy. The average home doesn't have 1,870 square feet on each floor (not including the basement or attic). The average home doesn't have historic landmark status and many of its original 1860s features. And the average home doesn't need $300,000 – or more – to bring it up to snuff.

The Solon House is anything but average.

The home, at 503 S. State St. and one of the most historic buildings in Champaign, is owned by the Preservation and Conservation Association, which is readying it for sale.

An open house for those interested in bidding on the home, or for those simply curious about the landmark, is set for noon to 5 p.m. Oct. 20 and 9 to 5 p.m. Oct 21. Tickets are $10 a person and can be purchased at the door. Guided tours will take groups of 10 through the house every 15 minutes.

"If they want, people come and get a ticket and then come back for the tour," said Karen Kummer, executive director of PACA.

Children younger than 8 won't be allowed on the tour, and people who have allergies – especially those sensitive to mold, mildew and dust – might want to take a rain check. The Solon House is musty and dusty. But it was a lot worse when PACA took over ownership in December 2005.

At that point, the home just north of Edison Middle School and across the street from the Champaign Public Library had been empty for more than 10 years. The last resident and owner, attorney John Solon, died in February 1995 and had not lived in the house for a few years prior to his death.

But the classic Italianate home looks like it has been empty – and neglected – for a lot longer than that. Faded 1920s wallpaper, all in flower patterns, covers the walls. Water damage is evident in several places. The home still has the old push-button style light switches. The front porch is rickety. The small kitchen, with its old white stove and cabinets, looks straight out of the 1920s.

PACA will have spent about $125,000 on the home, doing structural repairs and putting on a new metal roof, by the time the house goes up for bid in December. The house will have a minimum starting bid of $325,000 (the appraised value of $200,000 plus the $125,000 in repairs) and is available only to pre-qualified buyers.

"We had to do extensive carpentry work before work on the eaves and soffits could take place. There was a lot of carpentry work that had to be done before a new roof could be put on," Kummer said. "It needs everything updated – the plumbing, the heating, the electrical, new bathrooms, new kitchen."

But the basics are all there for a complete historical restoration. The woodwork still has its faux grain patterns (to make it look like more expensive wood). The original wood floors are still in place. The high ceilings (11 feet on the first floor and 10 1/2 feet on the second floor) have never been lowered. Most of the decorative plasterwork remains intact. The red brick exterior has not been painted, although it needs tuckpointing.

"Estimates (for the restoration) go up to $500,000, depending on how much work you could do yourself," Kummer said. "But then when it is complete, with a lot this size, you will have a $1 million home."

The home is one of the most important buildings in C-U because of its history. History also is a prime reason PACA has worked so hard to save it. In some ways, it could be considered the home that paved the way for Champaign's growth to the west and southwest. It was on the edge of town, with no other homes around, when construction started.

It was built on speculation by William Barrett, a wealthy developer (responsible for the "Barrett Block" in downtown Champaign, now the site of One Main) and farmer. He sold the house in 1869 to Able Harwood, a well-to-do, politically connected farmer who owned land in McLean and Champaign counties. It would be a retirement home for Harwood and his wife, Isabella.

Harwood (Harwood Township is named for him) died in the 1890s and his wife lived there until she died in 1903. The home was rented out for a few years and then purchased in 1907 by second-generation Irish-Americans, Francis and Abbie Solon. Solon was a self-made man who owned a lot of farmland in Piatt and Champaign counties. Members of the family would live in the home for most of the 20th century.

The Solons had five children: James, John, Mary, Ellen and Ann. Three of them, James, John and Mary, never married and lived in the home until (or shortly before) their deaths. James and John were well-known attorneys in Champaign. In fact, John Solon, who was 91 when he died, continued to work until the last few years of his life.

The Solon family also owned a number of other properties, most of them rental homes, and were major contributors to Holy Cross Catholic Church in Champaign.

"The Solons were also extensive gardeners," Kummer said. "Abbie and Mary both loved flowers."

Lilies and daffodils still pop up in the yard, which at one time went west to Prairie Street. An old pear tree and a pair of American elms – Dutch elm disease wiped out most of the trees in C-U – are among the plantings.

The house is empty and none of the furniture remains, most of it sold off in a 1995 auction. But when PACA acquired the home – surviving members of the Solon family, nieces and nephews, donated it – boxes of papers jammed the rooms. They were filled with documents from the law practice, correspondence and similar items.

"There were very few family pictures," Kummer said. "And we did not find any photographs of the inside the house."

The home was updated and underwent some modifications in the 1920s when radiators and steam heat were installed. A bathroom was added upstairs, the kitchen and dining room updated to an arts-and-crafts style, a few closets added and at least one doorway closed off. The house has four bedrooms, along with two smaller rooms, on the second floor. The attic is huge.

"This is everyone's favorite," Kummer said, climbing the stairway to the attic. "This could be made into a really nice great room or master suite."

Members of PACA, which is devoted to preserving historic structures, hope the right person, with a strong passion for home restoration (and the financial wherewithal to do it), comes along during the open house.

"It is a very prominent home," Kummer said. "It sits on a small rise and has that imposing architectural style. We want someone who really loves and respects the house – someone who understands restoration and rehabilitation and has the financial capability to do it. Because it will be expensive."

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