Couple sets up shop in former sanitarium
Life goes on in a former Elgin sanitarium, now home to several businesses and a lengthy renovation project
The structure known as the McNeil Mansion just west of downtown Elgin doesn't appear to have anything in common with the tenets of Zen.
Zen calls for being in the moment, and experiencing life as it occurs. And that is exactly what seems to have happened for both the house and its current owners, Tom and Mary Krebsbach.
The Krebsbachs, who originally intended to turn the 1881 mansion into a bed and breakfast, let life take its course. Instead they run their varied businesses out of their home, all of which somehow naturally seem to fit.
Along the way, thanks to the network of passionate local historians, homeowners and rehabbers, as well as an opportune visit by the granddaughter of the original owner, the couple learned about the mansion's colorful history on what was once known as Millionaire's Row in Elgin.
The Krebsbachs were living just outside of Madison, Wis., in 1993 running a bar and restaurant when they decided to travel to the Kane County Flea Market to search for a wooden sleigh with runners that Mary needed for a craft project. While traveling to the flea market, they stopped to see the mansion, which was for sale.
"We were looking to get out of the restaurant business, open a bed and breakfast, and had looked at some properties in Wisconsin that didn't work out," Tom said.
The 6,500-square-foot McNeil Mansion seemed like the perfect place as it was big enough and the price seemed right $250,000 which seemed like a bargain at the time.
"We made an appointment and the Realtor let us stay overnight here," Tom said. "It was cold, so the radiators were on. We ordered pizza and kept it warm on top of the radiators. We slept on the floor and ended up buying it."
The mansion was built for John McNeil, who made his fortune initially selling groceries in Elgin and later with a wholesale factory in Chicago that canned products sold throughout the United States. Originally built as a two-story Italianate with a flat roof, McNeil added a third floor with a Queen Anne stylistic influence, as well as porches in the early 1890s.
In 1909, the home suffered major damage from a fire accidentally started by a maid who was cleaning the back staircase with a flammable liquid.
After McNeil died, his sons owned the house until the early 1930s when it was sold to Dr. George A. Weirick, who used the structure to run his business known as "Dr. Weirick's Rest House." The establishment was an inpatient sanitarium for individuals suffering with drug and alcohol problems. Each second- and third-floor bedroom still had brass numbers on the doors from its rest home days when the Krebsbachs moved in.
The house continued its medical history when Dr. Weirick sold it around 1950 to Dr. Warner Tuteur, a forensic psychiatrist who was clinical director at Elgin Mental Health Center, or Elgin State Hospital as it was known at the time. Tuteur, and his wife, Dr. Marjorie Nesbitt, who was a general practitioner, both had medical offices in the mansion, but it was Tuteur's activities that attract attention. He regularly administered electric shock treatments in the mansion to his patients.
"After we moved in here, we talked to policemen who had gone to the Mental Health Center, picked up patients, brought them here for the treatments, then took them back," Tom said.
Tuteur was born in Germany and immigrated to the United States in 1937. He received the Friendship Award from West Germany in honor of his service to survivors of Nazi concentration camps. In addition, he often testified in court on the sanity of those accused of murder. Tuteur owned the McNeil Mansion until he died at age 80 in 1991.
The mansion remained vacant until the Krebsbachs stumbled upon it. By that time, the structure was "in pretty rough condition," livable but with a number of major problems.
The roof was bad, the ceiling in the kitchen was falling down, and all of the utility systems in the home were ancient. Even the boiler dated from the early part of the 20th century. It took about a year of moving their belongings on the weekends before the Krebsbachs were ready to move in, having by then sold their Wisconsin business. They took up permanent residence in the home in January 1994.
Neither Tom nor Mary had a job. Because he had a master's degree in accounting and finance, Tom went to work for a temporary agency specializing in that field, but quickly tired of commuting. By April of that year, he had decided to get his real estate license and specialize in selling vintage homes. In the meantime, Mary continued to pursue some of the handmade crafts she started while living in Wisconsin.
Then there was the work of restoring the mansion. Tom spent many days outside on scaffolding painting and restoring the outside of the house. He built and installed a boiler with the help of a local expert. Mary wallpapered the inside, using period-appropriate papers from a wholesale outlet in Indiana.
"The walls were all institutional green when we moved in," Mary said with a grimace.
In addition, Mary provided stenciling in various areas, such as in the front parlor from the picture railings to the ceilings, and faux finishes in alcoves at the end of the long first-floor hallway. Both worked on stripping and refinishing woodwork.
As with any vintage home, the interior is a combination of old and appropriately new materials. One of the most stunning features of the McNeil Mansion is its 13-foot ceilings. The front entryway is unique, too, with its glass doors with etching from behind, and its hand-tooled leather walls. These encrusted leather walls also grace the lower portion of the main staircase leading to the second floor, as well as portions of the first floor hall. While walnut woodwork runs throughout the house.
Built-in shutters were on every window in the house when the Krebsbachs purchased it, but the ones on the bay window in the front parlor are unique as they fold back into pockets in the wall.
Noteworthy is the original Steuben light fixture at the bottom of the main staircase. Originally the fixture was a gaslight with three lamps, but now exists as a single lamp. Another Steuben light fixture hangs from the ceiling in the ornate dining room.
Photos provided by McNeil's granddaughter show that the original dining room, which was destroyed by the 1909 fire, was possibly the most ornate location in the house.
The large kitchen easily melds modernity with original features. Several rooms, including a butler's pantry, occupied the area when the home was purchased. The Krebsbachs opened some of the walls to provide flow and utilized some of the original unpainted cabinetry for storage. An original icebox, with an opening from the outside as well as the inside, was converted to a traditional refrigerator. Overhead is a new tin ceiling, manufactured in Colorado, according to specifications provided by Tom and painted red by Mary after installation.
In its present state, the home has 23 rooms and four fireplaces. The second floor has five bedrooms and four baths, while the third floor has three bedrooms. At least six fireplaces were in the original home, including ones which no longer exist in the dining and billiard rooms. After finding pocket doors in the carriage house behind the mansion, the Krebsbachs split a single long room on the north side of the house into the billiard room on one side and Tom's office on the other.
Renovating the structure proved to be a lot more difficult than the couple imagined and plans for running a bed and breakfast fell by the wayside.
"Because everything is so much bigger with the high ceilings, everything costs so much more," Mary said.
Woodworking in Tom's office around the pocket doors, for example, will cost about $3,000 just for the materials, not including installation.
Working in the real estate business somewhat hindered those bed and breakfast plans, too. After spending time at Coldwell Banker, Realty Executives and RE/MAX, Tom opened his own firm, Vintage Home Realty in 2004, running it out of his home office. A drawing of the McNeil Mansion is the company's logo.
As it is, the Krebsbachs seem content the way life has taken its course, letting them run their businesses out of their home.
"Mary's stained glass has taken up the entire third floor," Tom said.
In fact, Mary's varied crafts businesses, which she markets under the umbrella name Autumn Rose, take up large sections of the home. In addition to the stained glass production, she also works in concrete, making birdbaths, steppingstones and the like. One of the larger bedrooms on the second floor is filled with all colors of yarns and dozens of sweaters, hats, bracelets, scarves and other items that she knitted or crocheted.
Mary has never had to advertise her businesses, relying on word-of-mouth and referrals, particularly for the stained glass work. What she concentrates on depends on the time of year. In the fall, the hand-knit and crocheted work takes virtually all of her attention in preparation for the annual McNeil Mansion Open House, Nov 12 to 14, and Nov. 19 to 21, that features not only her own work, but that of about 20 different quality crafters with items such as candles and soaps, vintage-inspired clothing, holiday décor, and more. Her original work is also sold in several boutiques in the Chicago area.
In addition to their businesses, what lies ahead for the couple is continued work on the second floor, which is largely unfinished, stripping and refinished more woodwork and putting up wallpaper.
So what's it like living in a huge, old house that's still largely unfinished?
"It's a love/hate relationship, particularly in winter when it gets cold," Mary said. "We have space heaters in the areas where we work a lot."
Although the mansion has a colorful history that some may say can induce a spectral presence, the Krebsbachs have never experienced any ghosts.
"There are a few people who have been in here who say they have felt a presence, particularly on the third floor," Mary said.
Tom laughed and shook his head.
"They must like what we're doing," he said, "because they don't bother us."