Belleville News Democrat
February 18, 2002
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
"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."
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.