On which side of history

138 North Main Street.

138 North Main Street.

Dear Editor,

“Narrow streets, shaded by towering trees, and lined with well-kept, two story homes….families strolling throughout the neighborhood, chatting with friends along their route to the ice cream shop(s) downtown…such scenes are commonplace in Rockford, a picture of small town America” (Rockford Master Plan, p. 18).

I am not a fan of felling homes, especially historic ones.  I am in favor of preserving them “to the fullest extent possible.” I am especially not a fan of “demolishing viable housing to make way for parking lots.”  Residential charm, once lost, can never be put back ( Rockford Master Plan).

Take a stroll down the east side of North Main Street, from Rocky’s Ice Cream north to Lewis Street.  Since the earliest pioneers came to Rockford, in 1842, this stretch of street has always been residential. It was filled with homes and yards and trees and the lives of the many families who lived there. Over half of the street is now paved parking lot.  Of the sixteen homes that once graced this street only eight of them remain.  And in their wake we are left with two large commercial parking lots ( both owned by Wolverine World Wide), one medium-sized parking lot (owned by Pederson Funeral Home), and one small city parking lot (created when the old Oatley Theatre was removed in the 1960’s).  How did this once tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly street become a parking lot for parking lots?

I don’t think anyone planned it this way.  I don’t know as if much long-range planning was involved.  One by one the homes disappeared, and whether the objections come before or after, it was always too late. Commercial needs took  precedence.

With eight family homes now removed from but just one side of a street, one hopes that the stark result will speak for itself.  But then another home comes on deck to be demolished in mid-April of this year. This home, just north of Rocky’s  Ice Cream is 138 North Main Street. It will be sad to see another piece of Rockford’s history slip between our fingers.

It’s always sad to see them go. I know for I have seen some of these homes fall right before my eyes.  Just north of Rocky’s Ice Cream stood the Hunter House, once operated as Sally’s Antiques and then as Pegasus Sports.  A fully intact deed verifies that Merlin Hunter, a pioneer from 1842, was the first owner of this home site.  The structure was razed in 2002.

A charming blue carriage house once stood behind the well-kept residence at 134 North Main St. This small carriage house added a lot of character to North Main Street.  “Built in the Colonial Revival Style, probably dating from the late 19th century, it had fine detailing and moldings and was very unique to the landscape of Rockford,  perhaps the last carriage house in Rockford of this age and style,” so wrote a local Preservation Architect.  Both homes were moved to a new location in 2002.

My neighbor down the street still mourns the loss of two North Main Street homes, one whose backyard  abutted her property.  Both were sturdy, attractive homes situated on pleasant lots. The sea of asphalt that replaced them in the mid 1980’s ( for the WWW employee parking lot)  added neither beauty nor charm.  Another older resident who once lived on North Main Street, near Rum Creek, recounts the days before the WWW customer parking lot claimed the site of his boyhood home sometime in the 1940’s.  He remembers the large trees, green grass, and the wonder of catching crawfish in the creek.  Some of the neighborhood boys even caught trout by hand and sold them to the factory workers.

These examples put flesh on a pivotal paragraph in our Master Plan, one which highlights the essence of vibrant neighborhoods and the need to maintain their integrity:

“An issue closely related to protecting Rockford’s small town charm is that of protecting the residential character of the City’s established neighborhoods from the threat of non-residential expansion….  [This] should be given priority over other competing interests.  Existing homes should not be sacrificed to non-residential uses without serious consideration of all other possible alternatives” (p. 19).

I do not own the property at 138 North Main.  I am aware of its historical significance, however.  It sits on Plat #11, next to the old Jackson Coon home at 148 North Main.  Jackson Coon was a merchant from Rockford’s early days and contemporary of Smith Lapham, our town’s founding father.  Jackson owned both plats of land, the deed of which dates to 1845.  His home was built first, and his daughter later lived in the house next door, the one to be razed.

The owner of the home at 138 North Main is certainly within his rights to demolish it.  It’s removal, however, tugs at a greater loss as one more piece of our history will vanish.  Nor does its demolition reflect the spirit of the master plan, as stated above.  Whatever appears in its place can never breathe of authentic 1920’s charm.

If I had a golden tongue and gold in my pockets to back it, I would try to save this house.  Though it needs interior and exterior repairs, it is structurally sound and, in my mind, has possibility written all over it.  I would ask WWW for but one small section of its large employee parking lot, pay to have the home moved to the other side of the Jackson Coon house  (saving the present owner demolition costs), and honor WWW and it’s founder by naming it the Krause House.

The Krause House could be offered back to the Rockford community in a multitude of ways.  It could be used as a resource for history, education, or the arts.  Maybe the home could become a residence for a returning veteran and his/her family, or perhaps Habitat for Humanity could join forces and help restore the home for a family in need.  These are only a few ideas.  I am sure others could offer more.

The closing of the tannery is imminent.  Many changes will come as a result.  Why not keep this home to remind us of Rockford’s past and pave the way for the re-charming of North Main?

G.A. Krause, who launched the WWW shoe factory and tannery in 1886 is believed to have said at the time, “I see possibility here.”

What would he say today?

Lynn M. McIntosh

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