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."