The Sycamore Historic District: Introductionby Steve Bigolin
The Sycamore Historic District is an architecturally interesting area of approximately 99 acres and containing 226 pieces of property. Generally speaking, the historic district is within Somonauk Street on the west and Main Street on the east, extends from Page Street on the north down to the end of South Main, and goes west along State Street/Route 64 to the start of the 300 block. Somonauk Street is included through the 900 block.Sections of Locust, Maple and California streets also are within the district, as are portions of such east-west streets as Elm, High, Ottawa, Waterman and Lincoln.The local citizens’ committee played no part in determining the boundaries of the district, which was designated in May 1978. Robert Wagner of Chicago, a National Register assistant with the Illinois Department of Conservation, was responsible for the boundaries of the Sycamore Historic District.He drew the boundaries on the basis of visual integrity, sometimes designating one side of a street as part of a district, while the other side was not, or a line was drawn specifically to include a particular building - the library or post office, for example - but not others.Since Sycamore’s origins date from the mid- to late 1830s, the oldest structures surviving in the historic district are in the Greek Revival style of architecture, which was then in its heyday of popularity.Post-Civil War styles, such as Italianate, Gothic Revival and Queen Anne, also are well-represented. Public and commercial architecture from the early 20th century in Classical Revival style is present, meanwhile, in the designs of the DeKalb County Courthouse, Sycamore Public Library, post office and The National Bank & Trust Co., as well as the Daniel Pierce Block, which is now the Sycamore Center at 308 W. State St.Some 40 structures of the 226 found in the Sycamore Historic District are considered as strongly contributing to its overall character. Of these, 21 rank among the most significant structures within the district. Much of the rest of the architectural ensemble is from the period of 1860-1900 and constitutes what was termed “good background of some distinction.”
Just what is a historic district?
Historic districts originally were conceived by preservationists as small protective buffer zones around historically significant structures. Later, preservationists came to realize that two types of structures were integral parts of any historic district:4key landmarks or focal buildings, and4supportive structures, which, unimportant in themselves, helped to define the place.Today, preservationists view historic districts as integrated landscapes in which focal buildings, lesser structures, streets, open spaces and landscaping combine to form a place of historic character.Following a recommendation to Sycamore by the Illinois Department of Conservation, Mayor Harold “Red” Johnson conferred with several civic and business leaders, all of whom felt strongly that the establishment of a National Register historic district locally would prove beneficial to Sycamore.The mayor then appointed a citizens’ committee to assist state staff with the work involved. That group included Dr. Jack Arends, chair of the Art Department at Northern Illinois University; William Boies Sr., grandson of Henry L. Boies who was author of the 1868 “History of DeKalb County, Illinois”; Marjorie Danielson, retired teacher and a historic preservationist; the Rev. William K. Gros of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Sycamore; Jane Ovitz, community activist and preservationist; Stanley Gullberg, longtime downtown Sycamore merchant; Genevieve Thomas, city council member; Georgina Yeager, Sycamore city clerk; and myself, a historic preservationist from DeKalb.
Background about historic preservation programs
In 1966, the U.S. Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act, which established the National Register of Historic Places. The national register is considered to be the official list of the nation’s cultural resources worthy of preservation, and is maintained by the secretary of the Interior.The act states: “The Secretary of the Interior (is authorized) to expand and maintain a National Register of districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects significant in American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering and culture.”The states were empowered to create appropriate professional review boards, to function in cooperation with a state historic preservation officer.Illinois did not initiate its historic preservation program until the early 1970s. The program operated under the auspices of the Illinois Department of Conservation. Staff members, called field surveyors, were dispatched to all 102 of Illinois’ counties to identify anything that might possibly qualify for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.Upon arriving in Sycamore in 1973, a field surveyor found such a rich concentration of late 19th- and early 20-century architecture, particularly in the Somonauk and Main street areas, that he recommended the establishment of a historic district.