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updated: 5/8/2014 4:36 PM

Research uncovers real use of Naper Settlement building

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  • Bryan Ogg, curator of research for Naper Settlement, says this white house on the settlement's property actually was a commercial law office in downtown Naperville, not only a private residence. The settlement rededicated a building Thursday for the first time in 45 years as the Hobson Law Office opened for tours.

       Bryan Ogg, curator of research for Naper Settlement, says this white house on the settlement's property actually was a commercial law office in downtown Naperville, not only a private residence. The settlement rededicated a building Thursday for the first time in 45 years as the Hobson Law Office opened for tours.
    Marie Wilson | Staff Photographer

  • Bryan Ogg, curator of research for Naper Settlement, explains the process of historical research by which he discovered a building on the museum's property had a different purpose than originally thought.

       Bryan Ogg, curator of research for Naper Settlement, explains the process of historical research by which he discovered a building on the museum's property had a different purpose than originally thought.
    Marie Wilson | Staff Photographer

  • During a tour Thursday of the newly rededicated Hobson Law Office at Naper Settlement, Curator of Research Bryan Ogg shows how lawyers in the mid-1800s used compartments in their desks to file away important documents.

       During a tour Thursday of the newly rededicated Hobson Law Office at Naper Settlement, Curator of Research Bryan Ogg shows how lawyers in the mid-1800s used compartments in their desks to file away important documents.
    Marie Wilson | Staff Photographer

 
 

Do enough reading and history might rewrite itself.

It did Thursday at Naper Settlement as officials rededicated one of the museum's buildings -- formerly known as the Judge Murray House -- into the Hobson Law Office.

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The one-and-a-half-story white building has stood on the western edge of the settlement's main lawn since it was moved there from Fremont Street on the west end of downtown Naperville in 1971, said Bryan Ogg, curator of research. And until Thursday, it had been interpreted as the Judge Murray House, built in 1842, presumably as a residence for Robert and Louisa Murray.

Something about the setup of the building -- with a family's bedroom, living room and kitchen in the front and a law office tucked in back -- made Ogg curious. He started investigating census documents, newspaper stories, historic building lists, property transfer information, telephone books and tax records from the 1800s, searching for the Greek revival building's true story.

"When he gets onto something, he just digs and digs and digs," Mike Krol, the settlement's interim president and CEO, said about Ogg.

The research took at least three years in between other projects such as developing a historically accurate sculpture of town founder Joseph Naper that was placed last August at the Naper Homestead Historic Interpretive Site at Mill Street and Jefferson Avenue. It led to a story of a building functioning as the office of at least three lawyers throughout the years, as rental housing and as a possible speak-easy during prohibition.

While Judge Murray and his wife did own the house for a time, Ogg determined Murray actually had his law office in a different building he owned, a hotel called the New York House at Main Street and Jackson Avenue. And in 1857, the Murray House was sold to Clarissa Hobson, who with her husband, Bailey, was one of DuPage County's first white settlers.

Clarissa gave the building to her son, Merritt Hobson. He was trained as a lawyer and paid taxes on the property from 1858 to 1865, using it as his law office, according to historical records.

"The story began to come out that this was a commercial building in downtown Naperville," Ogg said about the structure, which stands in the settlement in its original form -- not a replica. "It was respected enough that people saved it."

Inside the building now are authentic desks, maps, tables and chairs from the mid-1800s similar to those that would have been in a law office. A hand-painted sign above the door proclaims the building belongs to "M.S. Hobson, Esq. Attorney."

"We furnished it with items we already have in our collection," Ogg said.

Documents inside a law clerk's room are replicas of land deeds and patents Hobson drew up for his clients, so Naper Settlement visitors can touch them and review their contents. Old "Illinois Digest" law books donated by Naperville City Council member and attorney David Wentz also add to the interpretation of the space as a lawyer's office.

Naper Settlement spokeswoman Donna DeFalco said this is the first time in 45 years the settlement has re-purposed a building on its 12-acre property to make it more historically accurate.

"History is exciting when you look at the people," Krol said. "What we thought was a residence turns out to also have been a business right here in downtown Naperville."

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