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Inside the Hegeler-Carus Mansion in LaSalle

A TALE OF TWO CITIES
Old I&M Canal Towns and Mansions
LaSalle and Ottawa, with Utica, too!

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Last year the Getaway Guys biked along a stretch of the Illinois and Michigan Canal from the Isle a La Cache Museum just north of Lockport, Illinois to the site of the old Joliet Iron Works in Joliet. The former towpath-bike trail is smooth and relatively flat and abundant in reminders of the Canal’s former importance to growth and commerce not only along the Canal, but in Chicago, too. This year Neil and Alan decided to complete their I&M journey by going all the way to LaSalle, Illinois. The distance between Isle A La Cache and Joliet is considerably shorter than the stretch from Joliet to LaSalle, so the Guys had to make some compromises. canaltowns1Their plan called for short rides along various segments of the Canal and a number of stops in select communities, communities dating from the 1830’s and/or ‘40s and once directly affected by canal activity. The weather didn’t cooperate, however, which curtailed their bike riding, but added to their time to explore more towns in depth.

The communities of Channahon, Morris, Seneca, Marseilles, Ottawa, Utica and LaSalle-Peru owe their existence to the I&M Canal which was built in the 1830’s by Irish immigrant labor to move freight from the hinterlands to Chicago and beyond in pre-railroad times. Some of these communities flourished more than others. Not unlike the impact of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950’s and/or ‘60s, which killed many small communities, the arrival of railroads in the I&M Canal region before and especially after the Civil War meant decline for many canal towns. Most canal towns  probably got a respite during World War II when anything that moved or could be enlisted in the war effort pumped much needed revenue into places like Morris, Utica, Ottawa and LaSalle. The largess didn’t last. Today some canal communities are doing seemingly well while others appear to be struggling. At least that’s what the Guys thought.

Of the four communities the Guys looked at carefully, Ottawa (www.experienceottawa.com) seemed to be doing best. Site of the first Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858, this small city has a number of old buildings in good repair and a relatively vibrant downtown canaltowns2(an anachronism in the time of Walmart). Morris, architecturally,  has promise, but not much seems to be happening at the moment with its architectural legacy. Evidence of trying to make Morris more visitor friendly is abundant, but the results look mixed. One thing the Guys noted: there are lots of bars and restaurants. Utica (that portion not blown away by a tornado in 2004) is struggling to survive. Luckily it’s the gateway to Starved Rock State Park and therefore a convenient place to stop for gas, a snack or a souvenir prior to entering or after leaving the Park. The LaSalle County Historical Society (www.lasallecountymuseum.org) is located in Utica. Housed in a stone 1848 general store on the canal, it is informative and professionally laid out. This county historical society is worth an extensive look and its collections explain a lot about the Canal and its communities.

LaSalle, Illinois is a wee bit tired looking. It has a fair amount of interesting architecture (largely empty) but, its streets are almost empty, too. Evidence of previous activity is plentiful, but presently not a lot seems to be going on. canaltowns3One exception is the addition of a replica 1830’s canal boat to the local landscape. Inaugurated as a combination tourist attraction-history lesson and built to use along the Canal (eventually with draft animals providing locomotion), the LaSalle Canal Boat (www.lasalleboat.org) should do a lot to revive interest in this 170 year old waterway. It is available for parties and excursions (866-610-7678).

For the Guys the two gems along their itinerary were The Reddick Mansion in Ottawa and the Heleger-Carus Mansion in LaSalle.  The Italianate Reddick Mansion, designed by architects William B. Olmsted and Peter A. Nicholson and completed in 1857 for local businessman and Illinois politico William Reddick (1812-1885) is quiet an extravaganza. In the first floor rooms the degree of restoration and preservation done thus far is surprising and gratifying. canaltowns5What struck the Getaway Guys as most spectacular was the ornamental plaster cornices and ceiling medallions, not only their complexity, but their faithful restoration. The Mansion has served several purposes during its 151 years, first as a residence from 1857 until 1887, then as the Ottawa Public Library from 1889 until 1974. In 1974 the City of Ottawa leased the Reddick Mansion to the Reddick Mansion Association, a non-profit corporation charged with restoration and maintenance. To date portions of the house have been restored and plans are pending for further restoration. canaltowns5Other parts of the building are occupied by community organizations. The integrity of the original architecture is essentially intact and preserved for future generations, and Ottawa has knowingly (or unknowingly) subscribed to the philosophy of adaptive re-use without too many compromises.  By the way, the city’s Visitor’s Center occupies a restored carriage house on the property.

LaSalle, Illinois may not make hearts beat faster, but the Hageler-Carus Mansion (www.hegelercarus.org) is an absolute must while in town. Built in 1876 by Edward C. Hegeler (1835-1910) and designed by Chicago architect William W. Boyington, it was occupied by a member of the Hegeler-Carus clan until 2004.  This imposing four story structure of oversized proportions in the middle of nowhere, might easily be mistaken for a movie set (Great Expectations or the Benedict Mansion in Edna Ferber’s Giant). The superlatives giant, elaborate and grandiose don’t cut it when visiting this LaSalle monument. canaltowns6This place is not only BIG, but it’s in a state of suspended animation not usually associated with house museums. The library has been restored to it original late 19th century grandeur, but much of the house looks as though it was just vacated by a late, nutty aunt.  Prior to its rescue by the Hegeler Carus Mansion Foundation in the 1990’s, leaking pipes and a leaky roof led to structural damage, the result being peeling paint, melting plaster cornices and moldings, and ruined parquet floors. In its present state of repair, the mansion looks haunted. Much of the original August Fiedler furniture in various states of wear and tear remains, giving the house an additional quality of eireeness.

The Guys thought the differences between the restoration of the Reddick Mansion in Ottawa and stabilization of the Hegeler Carus Mansion in LaSalle dramatic. On one hand they witnessed a concerted effort to restore and maintain a mid 19th century home as it probably was. On the other hand, they saw a later 19th century house as a tutorial about what happen when pipes and roof leak.  At the Hegeler Carus, more is happening than meets the eye.  This place is different than other house museums, but that’s the point of its preservation effort. Instead of restoring everything to its former state, the Foundation has adopted a unique approach of que sera, sera approach. Neil, the Socialist (who gets a edgy in house museums), thought the Reddick Mansion pretty interesting. Despite its size and comfortable accoutrements, and its intent to show off its owners accomplishments, the Reddick Mansion is a comfortable and not too ostentatious fit historically. Likewise, the Hegeler Carus edifice is a commentary on greater wealth based on heavy industry, as opposed to Reddick’s wealth based on land speculation. Hegeler and his partner-friend from German university days, Frederick Matthiessen, built one of the world’s most productive zinc works in LaSalle. canaltowns7With zinc hauled from Mineral Point, Wisconsin (see our destination description). Hegeler and Matthiessen created for themselves considerable wealth and mansions commensurate with their positions. Oddly, both mansions(the Matthiessen was torn down) were practically on top of the Matthiessen-Hegeler Zinc Works, a seemingly strange (but not uncommon) owner-worker relationship in 19th century manufacturing, unlike 20th and 21st century owner-worker relationships where the owner doesn’t live anywhere near the workers!

The Reddick in Ottawa and Hegeler-Carus in LaSalle are perfect bookends for those interested in preservation and restoration of historic buildings. For those interested in leisurely, history-tinged bicycling, the I&M bike trail (weather permitting) is ideal. For lunch the Guys suggest a funky place in Ottawa called the Cheese Shop & Deli (www.thecheeseshop.biz). Despite its slightly out of the way location (along the Canal/bike trail at 1219 Fulton Street) and dubious appearance, the food is excellent. For an early dinner the Guys tossed a coin and chose the Uptown Grill (www.uptowngrill.com) in LaSalle. It was a choice between it and dining at Starved Rock State Park (www.starvedrocklodge.com). Typically half way through their very good meal, Alan said “maybe we should have gone to Starved Rock. August 2008

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