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updated: 4/17/2018 4:33 PM

Elgin opens 34 architectural gems to public on Saturday

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  • The Elgin Area Historical Society's Old Main is an 1856 landmark building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was Elgin's first building entered on the National Register of Historic Places, and it will be on the 2018 Open Elgin tour.

    The Elgin Area Historical Society's Old Main is an 1856 landmark building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was Elgin's first building entered on the National Register of Historic Places, and it will be on the 2018 Open Elgin tour.
    Courtesy of Open Elgin

  • The Elgin Area School District U-46 Planetarium and Observatory, at 312 Watch St., is expected to be a popular stop on the Open Elgin tour.

    The Elgin Area School District U-46 Planetarium and Observatory, at 312 Watch St., is expected to be a popular stop on the Open Elgin tour.
    Daily Herald Archives

 
By Dave Gathman
Daily Herald correspondent

Curious people will have to wait another year before they get a chance to personally inspect the "new" 89-year-old Elgin Tower Building. But the second Open Elgin Day on Saturday afternoon, April 21, will open the insides of almost three dozen other buildings -- many of them normally closed to the public -- for free tours.

A year ago leaders of the Elgin Area Chamber of Commerce and the Elgin Development Group's Enhancing Elgin Committee got an idea: to open businesses, office buildings, churches, schools and other structures all over the city for an architectural tour in early spring.

The resulting first Open Elgin Day on April 22, 2017, was so successful that they decided to do it again. Most of the 34 locations involved in the second Open Elgin will be open from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday.

Visitors will have to travel on their own from place to place, but either Open Elgin volunteers or people from the building's own staff will be on hand at each place to explain the building's history and answer questions. More than 45 volunteers have been recruited.

A map showing all the sites will be available at each site.

"Last year we offered 27 buildings and recorded 1,851 visits -- one person visiting one building," said Chamber of Commerce President Carol Gieske.

What drew the attention of the chamber and the Enhancing Elgin Committee even more was that Open Elgin had exposed Elgin's glories to visitors from 57 different ZIP codes.

"This really works to show off the unique architectural gems we have in Elgin," said Denise Raleigh, a Gail Borden Public Library employee who co-chairs the Enhancing Elgin Committee. "And to show the breadth of it. We have a bit of everything and we have a lot of cool."

Gieske said the Elgin Tower Building originally had been on the tour and its conversion from a 1929 office building into modern residential apartments could have made it this year's most popular attraction. But after meeting with the Tower management in recent days, the planners decided they couldn't put it on the tour until next year.

"The Tower is 60 percent rented already and Saturday happens to be moving-in day for two tenants," Gieske said. "Since the building has only two elevators, it wouldn't work to also have hundreds of visitors going through there. However, a video tour of two of the apartments will be posted on our website," www.openelgin.com.

Gieske said the busiest attraction might be the legendary Elgin Area School District U-46 Planetarium and Observatory, at 312 Watch St. Built in 1910 as a way for Elgin National Watch Co. to set the time on its watches, the observatory was on the tour last year and drew the most visitors of any site. "It had people standing in line for an hour and a half," she said.

Unfortunately, because of staffing needs, the observatory will be open only from 1 to 3 p.m. Judson University sites and First Congregational Church also will have limited hours.

Raleigh said library officials are "thrilled" that the original Gail Borden Public Library building at Spring Street and East Highland Avenue will be on the tour. Built in the 1890s as a mansion, it was bought by the stepsons of dairy magnate Gail Borden and donated to the community for use as a library in 1894. In 1968 the library moved to the new Civic Center.

Most of the time since then the building has been used as restaurants. For awhile it was combined with the adjoining Ackemann's department store. With 12,300 square feet, it had only one-12th as much space as the current Gail Borden main library.

The former Ackemann's building -- once the largest store in downtown Elgin, now used by the R.R. Donnelly company -- also will be on the tour this year.

Gieske said three usually inaccessible gems this year are the Church of the Brethren General Headquarters, along Route 25 at I-90; the marble Laura Davidson Sears art gallery on the Elgin Academy campus, along College Street; and the Second District State Appellate Court building, just east of the Hemmens Cultural Center.

"People will say, 'I have driven past those buildings every day for 30 years and I never knew what was inside," Gieske said.

"The tour really inspired me to look up, down and all around," one visitor told the Enhancing Elgin Committee. "Now I find so many beautiful things I just would have never noticed before. Thanks for opening my eyes!"

"I remember going to Professional Building with my mother when I was little," another visitor told Raleigh. "Now my sister and I are vintage people and revisiting these old buildings brings back great memories."

Other new sites this year are:

• The Nancy Kimball cobblestone house at 302 W. Chicago St. Built just 11 years after the first settlers arrived, it is one of the oldest homes in town and is now being rehabbed by Elgin Area Historical Society.

• Waverly Stables, built in 1853 along Highland Avenue just west of State Street. Built with cobblestones as the stables for the Waverly Hotel, it has outlived the hotel building by 101 years. It was recently turned into a banquet and events hall.

• Elgin Fire Barn No. 5 Museum, at St. Charles Street and Arlington Avenue.

• Hillcrest Elementary School, celebrating its 50th anniversary at 80 N. Airlite St. Open only from 1 to 3 p.m.

• Judson University's Herrick Chapel and administration building, joining the modernistic, LEED-certified Harm A. Weber Academic Center that was featured there last year. Open only from 1 to 3 p.m.

• Harold Rider Media and Fine Arts Center on the Elgin Academy campus.

• The Philadelphia Holiness Full Gospel Baptist Church at 76 S. Jackson St.

• First Presbyterian Church at 240 Standish St.

• Senior Services Associates at 101 S. Grove Ave., built in 1930 in the unusual Zigzag Moderne Art Deco style. The former home of Elgin's Salvation Army corps.

• St. Laurence Catholic Church, 225 Jewett St.

• Imago Creative Studios, 216 Prairie St.

Half the sites are in the downtown area, including repeat sites like the Elgin Professional Building and the Henrietta Building (Elgin Art Space, formerly Sears department store). Half are elsewhere, including repeat sites like the Oak Crest Residence, Lords Park Pavilion, Elgin History Museum and Elgin Public Museum. For a full list, see www.openelgin.com

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