GENEVA – Geneva’s historic blacksmith shop won a reprieve of sorts Jan. 18 as the Historic Preservation Commission continued the public hearing on a request to raze it to March 14.
The Shodeen Family Foundation, which owns the former Mill Race property at 4 E. State St., Geneva, also seeks to remove the historic landmark designation from the circa-1843 limestone blacksmith shop, insisting the structure cannot be reused, repurposed or relocated – and that it would cost too much to do so.
Demolition is a last resort if the owner has no other alternatives, an issue disputed between David Patzelt, representing the Shodeen Family Foundation, and preservation supporters who testified.
“There were items missed in the timeline of the staff report,” Patzelt said. “The first ones being proposals we had obtained from professional architects to complete the 50-page study and cost analysis of the repurposing, repairing and restoring of that structure. … When the architect and an engineer that were with the consultant set foot inside the building, they looked around and immediately commented that the building was unsafe and they needed to exit the building immediately.”
Patzelt also took to task the city staff report because it left out portions of the AltusWorks architectural firm assessment: “Severely deteriorated, poor condition, missing limestone, cracked mortar joints, not properly mortared joints, unstable, no longer stable. … The existing structural remnants of the original … building are only marginally stable.”
Patzelt asserted there was no one to come forward to use the structure and no funding to assist.
“We probably made a mistake in that we voluntarily shored the remnant structure,” Patzelt said. “Most likely if we didn’t shore that structure, we’d probably all be looking at a pile of rubble out there and be talking about this historic significance of the rubble.”
Resident John McCormick testified they should move the stones to a cemetery lot.
“That’s a suggestion,” McCormick said. “Then you could visit it.”
Others who testified were firmly on the side of preservation: Kendra Parzen, advocacy manager for Landmarks Illinois; Al Watts of Preservation Partners of the Fox Valley; DeKalb blacksmith Martin O’Connor; Geneva residents Colin Campbell and Alan Leahigh; and David Armbrust, trustee of the Wayne Historical Preservation Society.
Campbell said there was a local craft brewer who would have been interested in leasing the building for a beer garden, but not to develop it.
Leahigh offered to organize a group to step up with “enough imagination and creativity and resources” to do for the blacksmith shop what has been done for other historic buildings.
Armbrust said the building’s 180-year life counters the 50-page assessment that the building is too deteriorated to save.
“I urge you to recognize the value of the blacksmith shop,” Armbrust said. “Without a blacksmith, no community could have existed for very long. The blacksmith created nails, plows, knives, pots … utensils, horseshoes. He was society’s most important craftsman, the most useful man in any village, an essential figure accessed by all in society.”
O’Connor said he does blacksmithing “in a little limestone building, very similar to that, that also has mortar issues. I do that every week in DeKalb.”
“I’ve also demonstrated blacksmithing at the Garfield Farm under a tree,” O’Connor said. “Various uses don’t have to include a roof or plumbing.”
Watts said heritage is Geneva’s brand.
“Heritage is what makes Geneva unique. Heritage is what makes Geneva a great place to live. Heritage is what makes people want to visit, shop and eat in Geneva,” Watts said. “Heritage is what drives the economic growth of Geneva.”
Parzen said Landmarks Illinois was in “adamant opposition” to the de-designation and demolition of the old blacksmith shop.
“This circa-1846 blacksmith shop is one of the oldest surviving commercial structures in Geneva and it’s an important structure associated with Geneva’s pioneer era,” Parzen said.
Resources that date to the first 15 to 20 years of the start of a community are increasingly rare, Parzen said.
“Those that remain should be treasured for their ability to tell the story of the community’s origins, as few other resources can. Their preservation is in the best interest of the community and demolition should come as an absolute last resort,” Parzen said. “Having reviewed the materials and responses submitted by the applicant, Landmarks Illinois is not satisfied that all alternatives to demolition have been exhausted.”
Parzen said nonprofits can take advantage of preservation tax credits through partnerships with for-profit entities as an investor. The federal program with a 20% tax credit does not have the same limitations as the state program, she said.
Watts said the preservation of the blacksmith shop is an opportunity to enhance Geneva’s heritage.
“The applicant is correct that a standalone $1.4 million rehabilitation is cost-prohibitive,” Watts said. “That is far from the only option for this building. Over the last few months of crowdsourcing ideas on our Facebook page for some practical and affordable uses for the blacksmith shop, these include and are not limited to some uses that could be incorporated whatever else they wish to build on their lot.”
Watts said suggestions offered were for it to be a kayak or bike shelter, a community room, fitness room, sales office, marketing tool for their property, photography backdrop, an open air garden that does not require a roof, an open air patio, a small outdoor concert venue, or a restaurant.
“The applicant, as a property owner, has a right to choose what they wish for their property,” Watts said. “When their property is a historic landmark, it possesses a shared heritage within the community, giving the public a right to weigh in. This is why the city has a historic preservation ordinance with a high – but not insurmountable – bar for approving the demolition of a historic landmark.”
If the commission votes down the applicant’s request to remove the historic landmark and to demolish it, the applicant can appeal the decision to the City Council.