Historic Geneva blacksmith shop dodges wrecking ball

Residents thank alderpersons for their support

“Building for sale $1.00. Land not included. Must be relocated. Call Dave 630-444-8252.” The Shodeen Family Foundation, which owns the former Mill Race property at 4 E. State St., Geneva, seeks to have its historic designation removed and to raze it. A public hearing is still pending on the fate of the building.

GENEVA – The Geneva City Council voted to preserve the historic blacksmith shop at 4 E. State St. at a special meeting Sept. 26.

Alderpersons voted 9-0 with one absent to uphold the Historic Preservation Commission’s denial of a request from the Shodeen Family Foundation to de-designate the circa 1843 limestone structure and allow it to be demolished.

Third Ward Alderperson Dean Kilburg was absent.

The Shodeen Family Foundation owns the former Mill Race Inn property, a 1.4-acre site at the southwest corner of Routes 38 and 25.

Demolition is a last resort if the owner has no other alternatives – an issue disputed between David Patzelt, representing the Shodeens, and preservationists.

The Historic Preservation Commission heard hours of testimony at a hearing that was continued from January to July before deciding in August to deny both requests.

Several city residents thanked the council for its vote of support for the commission’s decision, including Erica and Lee Eysturlid.

“I actually live across the street from all of this,” Lee Eysturlid said. “I just want to say thank you for all the citizens of our side. The east side often feels left out. Now we don’t. I think you made the right decision.”

Colin Campbell, who had commented in favor of preserving the historic structure, also thanked the council.

Campbell said the Shodeen Group has shown it can take historic wrecks and make them not only viable, but beautiful, such as the Herringon Inn and Spa, Dam Bar and Riverside Banquets. The Shodeen Group is a family-owned company specializing in residential and commercial real estate development in the Fox Valley region, according to its website.

“It’s such a tiny project compared to things they have done,” Campbell said of the former blacksmith shop, which is 30 feet by 48 feet.

Before the vote, Shodeen attorney Kate McCracken urged the council to support demolition, saying the applicant had exhausted all feasible alternatives.

“This structure needs to be demolished,” McCracken said. “It is a structure that is no longer in existence. It is a function of rock and stone that is disintegrating – and it is not disintegrating as a result of anything the … owner has done.”

She disputed calling the structure a blacksmith shop anymore, saying it was a blacksmith shop from 1842 to 1860.

Historic Preservation Commissioner Jewel Jensen spoke of the hours of testimony they heard over seven months.

“The commission does recognize the historical and cultural significance of the historic landmark at 4 E. State St.,” Jensen said. “These early buildings are tied to the community’s earliest settlement and are a rare resource in the Geneva community. The unassuming, modest limestone building is the earliest surviving example of the water-powered industries that once lined the Fox River. It was a carriage and wagon shop, a barrel making factory and a laundry among other uses.

“It also has a cultural significance as a symbol of some of our first immigrants, the Swedish immigrants. The current exposed stone structure is significant because it is the very building that housed Anne Forsyth’s original Mill Race Inn, a woman-owned business that was encouraged and nurtured by Kate Raftery of The Little Traveler. The Mill Race Inn was a seasonal cafe established in 1933 in the depths of the Great Depression.”

Jensen blamed the owners for the structure’s unsightly appearance, saying they did little to maintain or preserve it since 2016.

Jensen said despite the protestations of the owners that nothing could be done to preserve the structure, the city’s own consultants determined that with financial support from the city through a tax increment finance district, it could be repurposed.

A tax increment financing district – known as a TIF – is a development tool used by local governments to encourage development or redevelopment in blighted areas that would be too expensive to improve with private dollars alone.

Patzelt did not comment about the City Council’s decision. As to the future of the property, he said, “There are no plans. That’s it. There are no plans.”