Preservationists who've been fighting to save architectural treasures inside two old University of Illinois houses got their first look inside this week, and they weren't disappointed by what they found.
PACA members tour UI houses they hope to get OK to salvage
CHAMPAIGN — Preservationists who've been fighting to save architectural treasures inside two old University of Illinois houses got their first look inside this week, and they weren't disappointed by what they found.
Rooms full of unpainted oak trim. Solid wood-paneled doors with brass knobs. Windows with leaded glass panes. Cast-iron grates prized by decorators and antique buffs.
"It's a beautiful house. I'd take it just like it is right now if I could fix it up," Preservation and Conservation Association Director Tom Garza said of the larger home at 57 E. Armory St., C.
After months of pleading, PACA officials got word recently that the UI is close to an agreement with the state that would allow the group to salvage architectural pieces from the two homes at 57 and 59 E. Armory St. before they're demolished.
Nothing is official, UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said Tuesday, but "we are optimistic about state approval."
The State Property Control Act says that state agencies can't dispose of state-owned "transferable equipment" without approval from the Property Control Division of the Department of Central Management Services. The rules are designed to ensure that the state gets maximum use and economic benefit out of public property. The question is whether architectural pieces such as staircases or oak columns fall under the same rules as desks or filing cabinets.
PACA members say the UI for decades let them salvage architectural elements from buildings that were about to be demolished. But that relationship deteriorated in recent years.
Last summer, they were told by Facilities and Services officials that the UI was awaiting state approval to allow PACA to salvage the two houses. But The News-Gazette later learned that request was never sent to the state; university officials said the UI's property accounting office was trying to determine what procedures govern architectural items.
The university in September put a hold on all demolitions until a comprehensive process is developed for handling materials in buildings slated for demolition. Chancellor Phyllis Wise also committed to developing a process, with the state's cooperation, to ensure that preservation groups can get routine access to older buildings and save architecturally desirable pieces from the landfill.
Meanwhile, UI officials are working with the state to allow PACA to salvage the two houses on Armory. CMS is still reviewing the information submitted by the university, spokeswoman Alka Nayar said Tuesday.
UI officials allowed Garza and Richard Cahill, a PACA board member, to tour the homes on Monday, making a list of the items they'd like to salvage.
The house at 59 E. Armory, used for years by the Illinois Radio Reader service, yielded solid-wood headers and doors with raised panels, old windows and a painted pine room divider with columns that would be perfect for a homeowner restoring a Craftsman home, Cahill said.
Even the radiators will be salvaged. They're often used as tables by PACA customers, including Wendy Turner (wife of former Illini football coach Ron Turner), who once bought a particularly heavy one, telling Cahill: "My husband has some guys who can help you with this."
PACA will also likely salvage the original pine floors upstairs.
"You don't see this kind of thing much any more," Cahill said.
There were quirkier finds in the basement, including old player-piano rolls and a control panel from Radio Reader's earlier days.
The house at 57 E. Armory — once owned by former UI Professor Max Beberman, father of New Math, and most recently used by UI Slavic Studies — is in far better condition. The downstairs is filled with unpainted oak woodwork carved with egg-and-dart detail — around the windows, door and 10-inch baseboards.
"The detail on this trim is amazing," Cahill said. "This is a house you'd expect a professor to live in."
The dining room has a cabinet that was once a pass-through to the kitchen and a bay window with a leaded glass panel.
Other finds: an oak room divider with columns; a pocket door between the living room and dining room; an oak staircase and railing; a 10-foot solid oak table; three-quarter-inch oak hardwood floors downstairs and sturdy maple floors upstairs.
The attic holds file cabinets full of records dating back decades — such as the 1970s-era bank statements and deposit slips from the American Association of Teachers of French.
"It would be fun to sit down and go through this stuff," Garza said.
Cahill wasn't sure what will be left inside the houses if and when they're turned over to PACA.
The preservation group will need several days to salvage the houses, he said.
"Here it is two weeks before Thanksgiving. We could have had this conversation in September," he said.