Century-old sketch helps Elgin man restore his porch

When Bill Decker first moved into a Victorian-era house In Elgin with his family, there was plenty to do.

Inside they tore down all the wallpaper, choosing paint instead. They refinished the hardwood floors and scrubbed the home, which had been empty for years. Outside, they landscaped the backyard, added a small pond and relocated the driveway. Then they replaced the carriage house with a three-car garage based on plans the previous owners received approval for, but never carried out.

The front porch, which looks out onto Liberty Street, gave them pause and fell toward the bottom of the “to-do” list because they hardly ever used it.

The driveway opens onto Arlington Avenue in the back where mail is also delivered. Decker said the “ugly” front porch — clearly rebuilt in a modern style — could wait, mostly because they weren't quite sure what to do with it.

“We couldn't find anyone who remembered the porch from before,” Decker said.

Then two of Henry Jensen's sketchbooks made their way to the Elgin Historical Museum a little more than two years ago, changing those priorities.

Steve Stroud, a museum volunteer and board member, said the books have bid documents for about 175 different buildings throughout Elgin. Residents whose houses were built by Jensen are welcome to stop by the museum and see if the original floor plans for their homes are included.

In the case of Decker's house, W.W. Abell was the architect, but he worked with Jensen to build it.

The sketch includes details down to the number of nails needed to build the porch, a two-level design that includes architectural detailing on the third-floor window above.

With the help of an Elgin 75/25 Historic Architectural Rehabilitation Grant, the Deckers financed the first level of the porch — a project in the neighborhood of $28,000. Instead of avoiding the front porch, now Decker can enjoy its beauty.

“When I walk out my front door it's like I'm invited to sit down,” Decker said.

This fall, the family hopes to replicate the second level and third-floor window treatment after having received a second 75/25 grant from the city for a project of similar magnitude. Then the porch will be complete.

“Bill's porch is exactly the type of project we like to see the funds used for,” said Jennifer Fritz-Williams, historic preservation specialist with the city.

Fritz-Williams oversees the grant programs and said Decker's proposal was at the top of the list for funding the last two years in a row.

Of course, when the porch is finished the Deckers won't be done with their restoration. They still want to repaint the outside of the house and there are projects sprinkled throughout the inside, especially in the kitchen. But it's work Decker said he loves to do.

He and his family moved from a historic home in Oak Park and looked at more modern places in Elgin but ultimately decided on their 1902 neocolonial. Decker said historic homes are “just better.”

“Our goal is not to get back to historical museum accuracy,” Decker said. “But we wanted to get as close as possible.”

  Ever since Bill Decker and his family moved into their home on Liberty Street in Elgin, they’ve wanted to change what he called an ugly, modern porch. They family did with the help of records at the Elgin Area Historical Society. Rick West/
  When a local carpenter’s old sketch book with bid documents from the late 1800s got into the hands of the Elgin Area Historical Society Museum, it gave Bill Decker the opportunity to restore his front porch as it was originally designed. Rick West/
Decker’s 1902 neocolonial house is one of about 175 early Elgin buildings found in Henry Jensen’s sketchbooks. courtesy of the Elgin History Museum