Belleville News Democrat
February 18, 2002

Rebuilding history
182-year-old Stephenson House has a story behind every brick

By Terri Maddox

A two-story home that's being restored by the City of Edwardsville is in pretty good shape, considering it was built in 1820, occupied by 15 owners and used as a fraternity house for 17 years. The home's four fireplace mantels are intact, along with some original woodwork, hardwood floors and built-in bedroom cupboards. Its three- brick -thick walls are relatively stable. "The house is 182 years old," said Joe Weber, an art professor and member of the Edwardsville Historic Preservation Commission. "It's remarkable that it's still standing."
The city bought the home at 409 S. Buchanan three years ago, thanks to a $500,000 state grant obtained through Illinois Sen. Evelyn Bowles of Edwardsville. Restoration is under way. It's a dream come true for local preservationists, who have been fighting to save the home for decades. It's considered both historically and architecturally significant. "There just aren't that many early 19th century buildings left," said Kathryn Hopkins, an artist and stay-at-home mom who heads the commission. "There are just a handful in the state of Illinois.
The home is known as the Stephenson House because it was built by Col. Benjamin Stephenson. He served as an officer in the War of 1812 and a delegate to Congress from the Illinois Territory before moving to Edwardsville inn 1816 to become receiver of public monies at the federal land office. Stephenson was president of Edwardsville's first bank, owner of its second store and a member of its first board of trustees. He and his wife, Lucy, had four children.
(Stephenson) was a protégé of Ninian Edwards," said Karen Mateyka, longtime Edwardsville historian and commission member, referring to the city's namesake and Illinois' first governor. The commission is restoring the home to its 1820s condition, mainly because it can. Stephenson kept meticulous records. After he died in 1822, his wife inventoried all their possessions for an estate sale. Stephenson built the home on 182 acres of farmland. Its federal architecture included two rooms upstairs, two rooms downstairs, a kitchen in back and attic space for servants. "All the brick was made right here on the property," Weber said. "There's at least 100,000 bricks on the outside alone. It's amazing."
Over the years, the home has changed ownership 15 times and undergone several renovations. In 1845 Frederick Wolf removed the original kitchen and built a two-story Greek Revival addition in back.
The J. Frank Dickmann family bought the home in 1902. They widened doorways, added a Victorian-style front porch and replaced the plain staircase with a fancier one.
"During the Victorian period, a lot of people wanted the more ornate, decorative style," Hopkins said. "Because this house was built in 1820, it was very classical and plain."
In the early '70s, Illinois Sen. Sam Vadalabene of Edwardsville introduced legislation to designate the Stephenson House as a state historic site. It was passed by the General Assembly but vetoed by the governor.
The Rev. Stephen Weissman bought the home in 1975. He successfully applied to have it placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It also was named an Edwardsville landmark.
"Local people knew all along that there was something special about this house," Mateyka said. "They may not have known why, but they knew it was special."



The last owner was Sigma Phi Epsilon, a fraternity at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Members lived in the home 17 years, installing a community shower room, painting walls bright purple and gold and covering floors with a hodgepodge of carpet and linoleum.
By the late '90s, the home needed major repairs. The fraternity sought help from the Historic Preservation Commission, renewing concerns about its future.
"The commission decided that if we were to preserve any building in this community, this was the one," Weber said.
The city of Edwardsville received the state grant in 1998 and bought the Stephenson House the following year for $150,000. The fraternity moved into the old Lincoln School.


The home's first work crew consisted of men from the Madison County Sheriff's Work Alternative Program. They were making restitution for minor crimes. "Without their help, we could not be doing what we're doing now," Mateyka said, noting the men removed plaster walls, hauled out debris and otherwise gutted the home. The city also hired architects and contractors who specialize in historic restoration. Today, they're working under the guidance of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.
Workers have demolished a garage, replaced or repaired roof rafters and floor joists, used concrete blocks to stabilize brick in places, rebuilt all four fireplaces and installed a new roof with red- cedar shingles patterned after the originals. "These guys are so skilled," said Jim Zupanci, a retired schoolteacher and commission member. "They're truly masters at what they do."

Contractors now are building a reproduction front door and pane windows. Future projects include removing exterior paint, tuck pointing brick, reconstructing the original staircase, repairing and refinishing woodwork, installing new plaster walls and utilities, and painting the interior. Eventually, commission members would like to reconstruct the home's back porch, summer kitchen, smokehouse, garden and shed. Then they want to fill it with antique and reproduction furniture.
"Historic preservation is expensive business if you do it right," Weber said, estimating the project will cost $800,000 or more. "And we owe it to future generations to do it right."

A group called Friends of the Col. Stephenson House has been formed to raise money to supplement grants. Eventually, members will maintain and staff the home. "It will become a house museum, open to the public," Weber said. "It will give visitors a chance to come to Edwardsville and see and experience life in the first quarter of the 19th century."
The Friends recently bought the Clark gas station next door to the home. They plan to demolish it, making room for parking spaces and a bigger yard. The group will hold a fund-raising auction May 18.