Geneva's historic Larrabee House to be renovated as gathering place for St. Mark's Church

  • The Larrabee house in the 1920s.

    The Larrabee house in the 1920s. Courtesy of Geneva History Museum

  • The Larrabee House at 327 S. Fourth St. in Geneva was built in 1854 and St. Mark's Church plans to refurbish it in the coming months to become a gathering place for the church and community.

    The Larrabee House at 327 S. Fourth St. in Geneva was built in 1854 and St. Mark's Church plans to refurbish it in the coming months to become a gathering place for the church and community. Courtesy of Dave Heun

  • Piles of brick and mortar currently fill the area between St. Mark's Church and the historic Larrabee House. The rubble is from tearing out a chimney in the house to open space for the upcoming refurbishing. This outside area will eventually be an atrium between the buildings and a new entryway to the church.

    Piles of brick and mortar currently fill the area between St. Mark's Church and the historic Larrabee House. The rubble is from tearing out a chimney in the house to open space for the upcoming refurbishing. This outside area will eventually be an atrium between the buildings and a new entryway to the church. Courtesy of Dave Heun

  • The mural painted 100 years ago by Louis Grell of Chicago for the St. Mark's Church chapel in Geneva was recently refurbished by experts in painting restoration.

    The mural painted 100 years ago by Louis Grell of Chicago for the St. Mark's Church chapel in Geneva was recently refurbished by experts in painting restoration. Courtesy of Dave Heun

 
 
Updated 3/21/2019 6:27 AM

You could see it in David Walter's eyes as he walked through the shell of the historic Larrabee House on Fourth Street in Geneva.

He looked like an HGTV home refurbishing star, looking over a significant task at hand -- restoring the historic structure into something purposeful for its owners, St. Mark's Church.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

And he should summon his inner HGTV-ness, considering he's a member of the St. Mark's board and in charge of the project to convert the house into a gathering place for the church and community.

"I love building things, and this project is a lot of fun," Walter said, while walking through the considerable dust and exposed wall and ceiling beams. "There is a lot of history here, but the truth of the matter is, it had become very difficult to live in this house."

William Larrabee, the mayor of Geneva in 1869 and a railroad man in the mid 1850s, would surely be surprised to see that the home he built at 327 S. Fourth St. in 1854 looks essentially the same -- despite a few different makeovers in the years that followed.

That house, part of the St. Mark's Church campus and former home for the Episcopal church's rector, is about to undergo what is surely its most extensive rebuild job.

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St. Mark's purchased the house, known then as the Blatner House, for $70,000 in 1960 as a home for its rector.

With an estimated $1.3 million price tag, St. Mark's members are funding the renovation of the house with the intention of connecting it to the church through an atrium and underground entryway.

Upon completion, it would become a center for small group meetings or wedding receptions and various church activities. The upper level would become the living quarters for a church employee.

"We've talked about what to do with the house for years," Walter said.

The culprits were old plumbing, lack of insulation, leaky windows and an overall weak structure, he added. Not to mention a huge chimney and fireplace that heated the building in its early years, but had to be removed for practical space reasons.

"The question was, what could we do with the house, because we can't tear it down and can't move it," Walter said. "We thought we could maybe repurpose it and turn it into something else."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

With architect Arney Silvestri of Silvestri Custom Homes helping Walter through the process, the wheels have been in motion for several months.

"Arney has been a lifesaver for me on this project," Walter said. "He has the same vision we do for what this house can become."

With bank and city approvals in place, there are still plenty of hoops to jump through to make sure the plans jive with what the Historic Preservation Committee expects in that district.

Because it is a church project, Walter is hoping the historic committee can be sensitive to the budget and embrace the promise that the project will restore something to make all Genevans proud.

In other words, he is hoping for few, if any, expensive adjustments or demands that would make it more difficult for the building to function as a viable church gathering place.

Walter sounds confident ground will be broken next month and the project, including improvements to the church at connection points with the Larrabee House, could be completed as soon as September.

St. Mark's campus dominates that stretch along Fourth Street, between Franklin and Fulton in Geneva. This house restoration will make the church property stand out more than it ever has in its long and interesting history.

Not just the house:

As long as St. Mark's Church in Geneva was on a history ride of sorts in researching the old house on its campus for refurbishing, it figured it might as well do the same to restore the 100-year-old mural painted by Louis Grell in its chapel.

Church members researched who could restore the mural, which was showing its age, to its original look.

Kuniej Berry Associates, a team from the Art Institute in Chicago came out and did just that. The art restorers worked on the large mural in the St. Mark's chapel inch by inch in January.

The restoration included cleaning the art without damaging it and patching any small cracks that were found.

Grell was a famous muralist living in Chicago in the early 1900s, having trained in Europe and worked with a young Walt Disney at one point. Church members say he painted the mural in the Geneva church, depicting the coming of the Holy Spirit, when he was 31 years old.

Burger groundbreaking:

The new Wahlburgers restaurant breaks ground Friday, March 22, on the west side of St. Charles, so it won't be long before we'll be trying the menu at what has been a popular restaurant no matter where the Wahlberg family has located one.

For those who are new to the area or have been on a news blackout for the past year or more, singer/actor Donnie Wahlberg and his wife Jenny McCarthy live in St. Charles.

He and his brothers, Mark and Paul Wahlberg, worked with St. Charles city officials and planners to bring a restaurant here near the Meijer grocery store. It's had significant success on the East Coast and has expanded nationally the past few years.

A miraculous effort:

Those attending this week's Third Tuesday Supper at United Methodist Church of Geneva were handed a note from the church volunteers.

That note was a bummer for those who had been in the routine of attending this free monthly meal with family or friends for the past nine years.

The volunteers were letting everyone know that this was going to be the last night for the community event, as the church takes a break from this mission.

It sounded like it was a general "regrouping" message, one that said the monthly dinner was closing shop for "many reasons."

One could speculate that the volunteer list had diminished and wasn't being replaced as steadily, or a strain on the budget or church facilities was maybe taking hold. Or, quite simply, the group that has been involved with this from the start needs a break.

For the first five years of this event, it had become a monthly routine to take my mother-in-law. It became the highlight of her month.

After her passing, I continued to go with her friends and my neighbors who, over the years, had joined us consistently.

It was on our calendars every month because we understood what it was really all about.

Sure, the initial concept for this dinner, and for other churches that offered free meals, was to provide a setting for those hurting a bit from that nasty recession. Over time, it morphed into a place for those who might feel lonely, or weren't able to make their own meals. Ultimately, it became a place for family and friends to take time out of their crazy days to eat, talk and laugh.

When you think about it, it's really been somewhat of a miracle the church and its wonderful volunteers could sustain this for nine years. It was a blessing that has to be measured in many ways to fully grasp what it did for people.

dheun@sbcglobal.net

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