State grants enable work at Solon House

State grants enable work at Solon House

CHAMPAIGN — The stately Solon House is still boarded up, braced and fenced, but there's a lot more activity around it these days, and the new director of the Preservation and Conservation Association of Champaign County says it's getting there.

The Solon family heirs donated the mansion at the intersection of State and Healey streets to PACA in 2005, and it has been an expensive property ever since. The house is assessed at a market value of about $223,000, so property taxes have been a burden, and maintenance to keep the building standing has added to the cost.

Costs had built up so much that PACA decided to put the house up for sale just before the real estate market crashed. There were no takers, and PACA took the property off the market.

Fortunately, said PACA director Thomas Garza, two state grants have come through to help fund more renovations, and extensive, ongoing exterior work continued on Wednesday.

The current work includes a replacement of front porches that have rotted beyond repair, Garza said. Workers will also remove and replace bad bricks and reinforce mortar joints.

The group plans to rework the ground so that it slopes away from the house. Garza said water from the next-door Edison Middle School property basically runs off right into the Solon House basement.

It will all be worth it to fix up the house that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and carries a local landmark designation, Garza said. The Solon House is one of only a few still standing in Champaign from the era immediately after the Civil War, and it remains nearly untouched.

"You walk in there and it's pretty much like stepping back in time," Garza said. "Very little has been done to it."

PACA has put so much effort into saving the house, Garza said, because removing the house would be like removing a memory from the community.

"It's a landmark that anyone who has lived here for any length of time has some memory associated with that house," Garza said.

Garza said he has a few plans for the Preservation and Conservation Association of Champaign County. He took over the director's role in the middle of September after the retirement of his predeccesor, Karen Kummer.

Garza has been on the PACA board and served as its president for the past few years. He resigned that role so he could take over as director.

Already, he has extended the hours of the salvage warehouse at 44 E. Washington St. in downtown Champaign. It is now open Tuesday through Saturday — before, it was only open to the public on Saturday mornings and Wednesday evenings.

"That makes us more accessible, I think," Garza said.

He said he hopes to "organize the business" so that the association has a little more time to do some projects it just did not have time to do in the past.

"PACA has been all volunteer for a long time, and that means things sometimes get done and sometimes they don't," Garza said.

A big part of what he hopes to get done, he said, is public education. Garza wants to engage schools so that kids learn about preservation from an early age, and he hopes to increase general public awareness, too.

"People are starting to get a better understanding of how important it is to not just keep throwing things away," Garza said. "It's an excellent time to remind people that preservation has always been about recycling and reusing."

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rsp wrote on October 04, 2012 at 9:10 am

The Solon House needs its own website with pictures and information about the work going on there and the plans for the house. It could link back to PACA and be a good way to educate the public on all that is involved in saving a house, and why it is inportant.

Sid Saltfork wrote on October 04, 2012 at 9:10 am

Agreed that the historic architecture is important; but the State of Illinois is broke.  Isn't the state broke?  I read it in the newspapers, and heard it on TV.

Fedupwithstatereps wrote on October 04, 2012 at 9:10 am

I wonder about the possibility of using trade students to do some of the work, from Parkland or local union apprenticeships?  Students and apprentice would gain experience (under the proper supervision of an instructor) without high labor cost to the project.  I agree a website of the project would be a good idea.

Sid Saltfork wrote on October 04, 2012 at 11:10 am

Good point.  It would be a win win for a partnership of union, and students.  My previous comment was in regard to the outcry that the state is broke, and cuts keep being made while at the same time grants are being given out.  The state's debts need to be paid first before money is given out for other projects.  Illinois has a spending problem.  That is not to say that some projects are not worthy; but they do detract from debts being paid.

pattsi wrote on October 04, 2012 at 1:10 pm

As one of the five individuals who established PACA and the one who wrote the by-laws, I applaud the suggestion of capturing this opportunity as an educational tool on many levels.

parkmymeterelsewhere wrote on October 04, 2012 at 9:10 am

I believe the market amount to be substantially lower than the original purchase price by PACA; wasn't it something like $275,000?  Will the  market value after restoration be more than $223,000?  Was there more than one assessment made of this property--as in a second-third opinion?

sanjuan wrote on October 04, 2012 at 10:10 am

PACA didn't buy the house.  The article says the Solon heirs gave it to PACA.   Nice to see some progress.

CULater wrote on October 04, 2012 at 11:10 am

It's about time. Champaign is a small city that needs some history to it. It is unfortunate that this house has been allowed to fall apart for so long. It should be a history museum for the city of champaign. I love the idea of students being able to aide in the restoration of the building it would certainly lower costs to the state. Its laughable that a building like this can be called a historic site and we have let it fall to this current state of disrepair. Champaign continues to look to the future (baseball stadiums) while continuously forgetting about its history.

Sid Saltfork wrote on October 04, 2012 at 8:10 pm

The Cattle Bank, the Wilbur House, the Lorenzo Taft House, the cottage in Urbana off of University Ave.........................  How did those work out?  How much tourism, and traffic do they have now?  Things to be restored, and maintained; but not utilized.

rsp wrote on October 06, 2012 at 10:10 am

Number one problem- lack of information about how to get in to see them, that they are there for visitors. 

bluegrass wrote on October 08, 2012 at 9:10 am

Number one problem - very, very, very, very, very few people are going to stop by an old house in their own town, let alone drive to another town to walk through an old house.

Sid Saltfork wrote on October 08, 2012 at 11:10 am

bluegrass;  We do agree on some things.

pattsi wrote on October 07, 2012 at 11:10 am

Slight correction--the house carries the name of Lorado Taft.

Sid Saltfork wrote on October 07, 2012 at 6:10 pm

Thank you for the correction.  How much did the restoration cost for it now to sit empty, and relatively unknown?  Everyone wants their grant to be provided while they decry the cuts to programs serving the children, Disabled, and elderly.

catyr wrote on October 09, 2012 at 3:10 pm

I can't speak for the other buildings, but the cottage inside Leal Park is the Administration Office for the Urbana Park District and six full time administrative staff members work there every weekday contributing to the essential functions of the park district.  I wouldn't call that unutilized...

Sid Saltfork wrote on October 09, 2012 at 6:10 pm

Thanks for the correction.  It is nice to know that six of the fifty one employees of the Urbana Park District are housed there.  Would you happen to know what the annual budget for the park district is for this year?  I am, also, curious about the number of Urbana police officers; and the number of fire fighters?

Sid Saltfork wrote on October 09, 2012 at 6:10 pm

catyr;  I do apologize for asking the questions about the number of Urbana police, and firefighters.  I looked it up myself.  Based on the websites; there are 63 law enforcement employees including administrative staff, and 55 firefighting employees including administrative staff.

Urbana Law Enforcement Staff: 63

Urbana Firefighting Staff: 55

Urbana Park District Staff: 51

Number of Statues: ?

billbtri5 wrote on October 10, 2012 at 9:10 am

with public safety,  retiree's pensions and medical insurance funding  now on the chopping block I can't imagine why the State would want to spend funds on projects like this. 
And 51 employees on the Urbana Park District?  why not make it 10 and add 40 more police... 

I just read that Illinois has over 6700 units of government, highest of all states,  a close second is Pennsylvania with 4200....

are citizens in Illinois in need of that much government?...


Sid Saltfork wrote on October 10, 2012 at 3:10 pm

billbtri5;  The legislators give out grants for "campaign donations", and votes.  Most of Illinois units of government are top heavy with administrators.  Add the patronage, appointed, paid members of all the commissions, and boards to the mix.  Look at the state, and municipal priorities.  Yes, the ratio of park district employees to law enforcement officers seems unbalanced in light of Urbana's increasing crime.  State grants for swimming pool enhancements, old buildings, indoor volleyball courts, and statues cost state money in the form of grants.  Are they necessary when the state is cutting services to the children, the Disabled, the elderly, and the poor?  Are the grants necessary when the state needs to pay it's debts to the vendors, and pension systems?  I suppose it comes down to "who you know".  The State of Illinois has a long history based on "who you know".