Demolition of Starr Mansion by Diocese brings little response

Demolition of Starr Mansion by Diocese brings little response

By Shellie Berg

By Shellie Berg

Staff Reporter

On Monday, May 21, the Catholic Diocese of Rockford demolished the 1905 Starr Mansion at 1260 N. Church Street.

Some individuals concerned with historic preservation expressed their concern, but by and large, there has been little response from the community.

The home had been purchased from Norma Starr by Royce Johnson who had carved it into three apartments and removed the interior and exterior staircases.

Later, after the Diocese purchased it, the pillars and portico were removed because damage by squirrels and other pests made the entrance unsafe.

The Diocese used the building for office space. The offices in the house have moved to the Firstar Bank building on the corner of Whitman and North Church Street.

Northern Illinois Service Co. demolished the steel-sided house.

With the space that will be available, the church wants to obtain a lighted parking lot to accommodate 50 parking stalls. Owen Phelps, the organization’s communications director, said the expansion is part of the general rehabilitation plan. He also said that the house would have cost $200,000 to $300,000 to maintain or rehab.

“There was an area just south of the school [St. Peter] where we built a park and playground area,” he said. “We’ve landscaped the grounds, and now we have these two older structures. The issue came up there were warped walls. We decided to have the building looked at in terms of the long-range planning.”

He said that the steel siding veneer on the building allowed moisture to seep in, and that damaged and warped the walls.

“That became apparent on the inside of the house,” Phelps maintained. “In the course of having the house looked at, it needed new walls. It needed new windows. You’d still end up with an old house.”

Phelps said people have expressed concern about the historic significance of the home, which Mendelssohn Club founder Blanche Starr owned the house until 1950. The second owner purchased the house in 1950 and converted it into four apartments. Phelps stated the historical aspects of the house were diminished because the previous owner gutted it.

“I’m told it was a magnificent house years ago,” he stated. “Some fantastic chandeliers are all gone. We bought it in the late 1950s, and it had already been completely cut up. It lost its historical significance a long time ago. I don’t think that neighborhood is much better appearing than before we did the work there.”

Phelps said that the house wasn’t torn down because the organization sought parking. “The house was torn down because the house needed to be torn down,” he noted. “The issue is, what do you do with that open space?” He said parking and lighting are necessary and will enhance the overall appearance of the area.

During major events at the cathedral, Phelps has seen vehicles take up parking in five blocks.

Dorothy Burnside, who lives at 340 King Street, was taking a walk when she noticed the demolition. She noted that the house has always been kept up well and was disappointed when she saw the structure crumble.

Alberto Altamore, owner of Altamore Ristorante, felt that the church failed to inform the public of the demolition. Altamore, a Catholic, doesn’t belong to St. Peter’s but was upset that the house was torn down. He also stated that all of a sudden one day, he saw the house being torn down. “It’s kind of heavy-handed on their part,” he said. “There was no clue what was going on.”

In the past, on the issue of historic homes on Salem Street, the Diocese asserted their rights of private concern and private property.

The City of Rockford’s Community Development Department indicated that no one attempted to get the house listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

According to the city’s landmark criteria, the structure or site must “retain the integrity and spirit of the original design.”

It also must meet one of several criteria. It must predate 1860; be an “exceptional example” of a historic or vernacular style, or one of the only left in the city; be an “extraordinary curiosity or picturesque work”; be created by a nationally-known architect; bear a known historic relevance due to its being linked to the life or activities of a major historic individual, organization or group; be a now-rare structure or site; have or might likely have information significant to prehistory or history; or be a past or present focal point of life in the city due to activities held there.

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