JOLIET – The Joliet Historic Preservation Commission is marking its 25th anniversary helping preserve the history of a city that’s been around since 1831.
It can be a delicate task at times, as the commission deals with such issues as one it faces now – whether to try to preserve the onetime home of Dr. William Dougall, one of the city’s historic figures, despite the decrepit condition of the building.
The commission has been involved in granting local landmark status to some of Joliet’s cherished 19th-century structures, including the Jacob Henry Mansion and the Patrick C. Haley Mansion.
It also has helped bring attention to obscure buildings with a place in history, such as the first Dairy Queen that was opened in 1940 at an otherwise unremarkable storefront at 501 N. Chicago St.
“We’ve established over 100 landmarks, several local districts – raising the awareness of historical neighborhoods and traditional neighborhoods in Joliet,” said Sharon Merwin, who has been on the commission since it was formed in 1991. “Equally in the last 25 years there’s been a tremendous amount of new growth in Joliet. I think the fact that we came at the same time was good.”
The commission also recognizes preservation efforts with an annual award.
The most recent Annual Preservation Award recognized new construction, when it was given last month to the Joliet Township High School District and Wight & Company architects for preserving the “historic environment” of the Joliet Central campus and the iconic limestone high school building while constructing a new student center that opened in January.
High school board President Jeff Pierson quipped at the award presentation, “We were able to keep it a secret as to where all of our limestone is hidden in the city.”
But preservation can be a troublesome task, as has been the case with the Dougall home.
The commission at its meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday is set to again consider city staff’s request for approval to tear down the house at 209 Union St., which has become a neighborhood eyesore.
Dougall, in addition to being a doctor who treated workers for the Illinois & Michigan Canal Division, was a Civil War captain who commanded a black regiment fighting for the Union. An exhibit is dedicated to Dougall at the Will County Historical Museum in Lockport.
Commissioners grappling with the Dougall matter last month noted the need to keep better tabs on historic buildings in Joliet.
One challenge facing the commission these days is a shortage of members.
The commission at full strength has 12 members. But it’s down to six commissioners, although two recommended appointments are awaiting approval by the mayor and City Council.
They are Greg Peerbolte, executive director of the Joliet Area Historical Museum, and Paul Burden, who lives in the Upper Bluff Historic District created by the commission.
Burden, a retired librarian, was invited to join after he went through the rigorous review required to repaint his house, since it is in the historic district.
“Living in the area, I do have a natural interest in this,” Burden said. “The old saw is you don’t know where you’re going, if you don’t know where you’ve been. I have a natural interest in this.”
The future of preservation
Another challenge facing the cause of historic preservation, Merwin said, is that fewer people have the skills and desire to put in the work that older houses need.
“People want a lot more streamlined lifestyles. They’re interested in no-maintenance,” Merwin said. “Thirty to 35 years ago, people would re-roof their homes. People would rebuild their porches. People would repaint their houses.”
Barb Newberg, a city planner who serves as the staff liaison to the commission and was it’s original secretary 25 years ago, said she believes Joliet is fortunate in that older neighborhoods have not been bulldozed as has happened in other cities.
“We have so many neighborhoods that are pretty much the way they were when they were built. I’m very proud of that,” Newberg said. “That’s really a good thing to say that Joliet has been able to keep its neighborhoods intact. I think a lot of people are appreciating what’s there.”