The Neff farmhouse on the campus of Benedictine University has begun a new chapter in its 160-year history via its transition into the $2.5 million Neff Welcome Center.
On Oct. 1, a dedication attended by monks from St. Procopius Abbey, local dignitaries and university personnel and students officially opened the center.
It is appropriate that the rugged limestone structure with its clean, modern updates be a welcoming center. Standing at the front of the university's campus on College Road, that is almost exactly what its been doing all along.
The Neff farmhouse was built in 1852, and remains among the oldest structures in DuPage County. Morris Neff, who built the house for his family, farmed the land for more than 40 years.
Early in 1896, the Benedictine monks, who began St. Procopius College in Chicago, came to Lisle looking for land for a permanent location. The countryside would afford the school space to expand, which the city could not. The purchase price was $6,240 for the 104-acre farm, house, furniture, 40 hens and a top buggy.
Soon after, the two-story limestone house welcomed religious Brothers Stanislaus Ptacek and Luke Slajs. A small chapel occupied a second floor corner room. With the help of Adam Neff, the farmer's son, the men farmed the land and sent the produce to the city campus.
With the arrival of Brother Anthony Jana and Father Valentine Kohlbeck the following year, a new barn was built. A lean-to on the farmhouse served as a blacksmith shop. The house was the primary residence for the monks until Benedictine Hall was built in 1901.
"The Neff farmhouse is in better shape today than it was when it was built," university President William J. Carroll said at the dedication. "Later the monks purchased an additional 230 acres and the tiny mustard seed that was the farmhouse grew to the 11,000 student university it is today."
The house's next use was as a bunkhouse welcoming single workmen who labored on the monastic farm and had little access to transportation.
"It would have been a crowded bunkhouse," said Father James Flint, the abbey historian. "There also were no indoor plumbing facilities until the 1940s."
In 1962, the Neff farmhouse welcomed its last resident, Art Denardo, a Korean War veteran who worked at the university as a dishwasher, janitor and custodian at different times. He took great pride in doing a job well done. At the dedication Denardo said he was pleased the stone house was preserved and pointed to a pair of pines facing College Road that he planted many years ago. A large oak tree on the property could be almost as old as the original house, according to Denardo.
As many as eight workers lived in the house at one time, Denardo said.
Father Joseph Vesely and Father Raphael Kozel, who both at the dedication, remember living at the stone house. Vesely came to work at the college and in the process found he had a calling to religious life. Kozel tended a large garden on the university property for many years. Preserving the yield from 60 tomato plants kept the abbey supplied with the versatile fruit all winter long. Many of Kozel's pine seedlings are now towering pines that bring beauty to the Lisle campus.
After six months of construction, the new welcome center incorporates the original stone cottage into a 2,700-square-foot structure with offices, event space and an alumni conference room.
"As the university itself began its Lisle journey here, in this place, incoming students will likewise begin their Benedictine journey here," Carroll said at the dedication.
Inside the center, the original house basement was filled in to floor level. The second-level flooring was removed to create a two-story gathering room with a high, exposed-beam ceiling. The room is not large, but it is the exact footprint and outside walls of the original farmhouse.
It is hard to image this space once was the entire Neff farmhouse. All the windows were exchanged with sleek and efficient units accented with dark wood trim and framed out to account for 18-inch thick stone walls.
In a wide hallway, black and white historic photos line a long wall. A pair of interior bathrooms bear no resemblance to a long-ago country outhouse.
At the far south end of the structure, a large wraparound deck overlooks a landscaped pond. New gingko trees and natural plants give the center's landscaping a polished look.
The stonework on the addition is from the Lemont quarry and cut to duplicate the original stone, said architect Scott Swanson, with the DLR Group architects in Chicago that designed the welcome center.
From the outside, the stonework flows almost seamlessly from old to new.
At the dedication, Abbot Austin Murphy, of St. Procopius Abbey and chancellor of Benedictine University, blessed the structure and spoke on the importance to hand students now and into the future the strong sense of faith, a spirit of sacrifice and respect for tradition that is part of the Benedictine experience.
The Neff Welcome Center is now ready to welcome students, visitors and alumni to share the university's proud history and Benedictine values as it continues to welcome one and all to its Lisle campus.
• Joan Broz writes about Lisle twice monthly in Neighbor.