November 17, 2009
By John Tienken
UIS may seem like a small campus with few of the intricacies of larger campuses. We lack numerous ancient buildings. Most UIS students have the acronyms of the handful of buildings memorized.
Perhaps that adds to the charm of a campus where going to class is more a matter of waking up on time than of catching the bus or jogging to that one building on the other side of campus.
However, there is a mysterious building on the grounds of UIS past UHB, away from TRAC, largely hidden from practice soccer fields by an orchard of sorts. It is a white frame, two-story house.
At night, it may remind one of a creepy, abandoned house than of the piece of history it actually is.
That house is the Strawbridge Shepard house.
It sits on the road between Lincoln Land and UIS, designed with an elegant symmetry complemented by Doric columns and windows in the Greek tradition.
Originally constructed in 1844 by a man named Thomas Strawbridge, the farmhouse is one of the oldest homes left in central Illinois. Strawbridge was fairly successful leather worker in the Springfield area when he built the house and bought several hundred of the surrounding acres of farmland, prairies, and woods. He even owned the very acreage that UIS sits on.
The approximate cost of the Greek revival house would have been around 200 or 300 dollars then.
“Strawbridge spent nearly the average annual salary on this house, which is pretty remarkable if you think about it,” history professor Bill Siles said.
Even more remarkable is that the design for this house came out of a book. Strawbridge selected elements of the house’s design out of a book and the Central Illinois carpenters, masons, and laborers made it happen, on location, out of a book written by men hundreds of miles away.
But as time went on, Strawbridge, joined by his widowed sister, eventually died and the house was sold to the Shepard Family in the 1870s. It was them who made the number of additions to the house including a windmill.
“What we call green-tech,” they used as a means of living, Siles said. Currently in the plans is eventually the construction of a windmill based off surviving pictures of the windmill which used to turn in the breeze over a hundred years ago.
The Shepards filled the house with a family and developed the land for farming. They built up a fairly successful enterprise, perhaps even planting corn in the same land that UIS now leases to farmers to grow corn on.
The Shepards and various descendants lived in the house until 1970 when Sangamon State University, the predecessor to UIS, was formed. In fact during the early years of SSU, the house was used as office space.
Eventually money began to trickle in, temporary buildings (those green buildings on the east end of campus) were constructed and that was considered the end of the Strawbridge-Shepard house.
The chimneys were capped with concrete and all manner of insects infested the house, as the university and surrounding area grew and developed.
However, life was breathed back in the Strawbridge-Shepard house a couple years ago when a group of concerned citizens rallied to save the building. The University had plans to demolish the structure, as it had become a legal liability.
The house leaned off kilter because of a crumbling foundation and it had a roof weathered by too many winters in central Illinois. Now the University has granted the Elijah Iles Foundation a ten-year lease to restore the historic site.
“If you had seen this house just last year…nails sticking up through the floorboards…we have made significant progress,” Siles said about the restoration efforts. But the house still has a long way to go as windows are still missing panes, walls need plastering, doors need to be hinged, and animals still need to be permanently removed as traps are still on the inside of the home.
Walking through the house, one can hear the echoes of soccer game announcements reverberating on the inside, the cold fall wind filling the rooms, many lacking insulation, with a draft.
In a larger sense though, why is this house worth saving, worth all the money that is undoubtedly being poured into it. Ward Miller, a leading building conservationist in the state, said the Strawbridge-Shepard house provides “an understanding of people and events on a personal level” allowing people to literally and figuratively to “get in touch” with history.
It is probable that the Strawbridge mowed the lawn during the civil war and the Shepards raked leaves during Grover Cleveland’ eight year disjointed presidency. Things we continue to do. But they also lived differently having a windmill not for power, but for water to drink and wash with. An outhouse not to look at, but to use. The Strawbridge Shepard house connects us personally to those stories and lives of bygone times.
“Maybe only three in ten people get it,” only three out of ten who can imagine the past and connect to the lives lived there, “but for those three out of ten people who do…its remarkable,” Miller believes. That is the root of the imperative to restore the Strawbridge-Shepard house.
The exact function of the house once completed is up in the air waiting to be fixed to a firm foundation, but don’t be surprised, if in the next couple years, classes are held in the house.
As events are held at this house, the hope is that imaginations of visitors will go wandering the whispers and remnants of the past guiding it in a meandering route of daydreams and insight on the way things once were.
Who knew so much could come from one old house. That old, mysterious house on the prairie.
Photographs by Luke Runyon