Casseday House saved but shuttered

Still, Will County Historical Society says it is ready to get started on plan to turn building into a museum

The 19th Century Casseday House was saved from demolition more than a year ago.

The 560-ton limestone structure was even moved several blocks, a relocation that took an entire day because of the delicate challenge of moving a building so old and so heavy.

But opening the house to the public as a local African-American museum is an even more daunting challenge for the Will County Historical Society.

The society, which took ownership of the building as Joliet residents sought to save it from demolition, is just beginning fundraising for the future museum, a process put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Because of COVID no one was working. No one was giving money,” said Sandy Vasko, president of the Will County Historical Society, said Tuesday. “No one wanted to see you in person to ask for money. I think we’re coming out of that now.”

The building was moved on March 23, 2020, just days after the governor’s first stay-at-home order at the onset of the pandemic.

Back then, Vasko described the plan to convert the building into a museum as “an uphill kind of thing,” and she hasn’t changed her outlook.

The building still looks pretty much like it did the day it was moved from the corner of Jackson and Collins streets, where it was replaced by a Thorntons gas station, to Jackson Street location near Youngs Avenue where it stands now.

It’s closed with windows boarded up and sits on a gravel parking lot filled with potholes.

The building, however, has been put on a foundation, which secured it to its new home.

The question of the status of the Casseday House was raised last week at a City Council meeting after a presentation on historical preservation that did not include any mention of the building.

Councilwoman Bettye Gavin asked for a report from staff on the project.

“I want to know the next steps,” said Gavin, whose council district includes the house.

The house is on city-owned land with a lease that sets rent at $1 a year, an arrangement made to save the house along with a $300,000 contribution from Thorntons that funded the relocation of the building.

Vasko said she has not heard from the city yet but there are next steps being taken.

The historical society is ready to hook it up for electricity, but faces an obstacle because ComEd has said there is a tree in the way.

Once the inside can be lit up, Vasko said, an architect can examine the interior to determine what needs to be done to adapt the building to public use. Cleaning can begin, and a Joliet businessman has offered to provide volunteers.

The museum formation is starting, too, she said.

“We are starting the fundraising process,” Vasko said. “We have people going through our archives on black history to see what we are going to pull and take over there.”

Vasko noted the historical society got involved with the preservation of the house at a time when it faced the prospect of demolition and then immediately was confronted by the setbacks presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We felt we had to step in, even though this was something we were not prepared to do,” she said. “Yes, we put ourselves in a bind. I never said that we didn’t.”