Therese Ginestra Schmeltzer on home, sweet home

Therese Ginestra Schmeltzer on home, sweet home

By Susan Johnson

By Susan Johnson

Copy Editor

Therese Ginestra Schmeltzer is very much the “lady of the house” at 1115 S. Main St. For a while, it looked as though the future of the house was uncertain, but now with a new president of the board of directors, Deb Sorensen, and renewed interest in preservation, the house should be secure for some time to come.

The house was built in 1857 with funds from whiskey sales by Freeman Graham, Sr., a local businessman. Schmeltzer’s father, Leo, purchased the house in 1926 from Graham’s daughter, Julia, and her husband, Henry Warner.

Noted for its unique Italianate architecture, with its inlaid flooring in geometric patterns, famous stained glass window and Victorian atmosphere, the house has a permanent place in Rockford’s history. Mrs. Schmeltzer graciously agreed to talk to us.

TRRT: What are your earliest memories of growing up in the house at 1115 S. Main?

Mrs. Schmeltzer: “I did not realize that everybody did not live in a house like this. I knew that I had a place to be proud of, but I thought everybody had a house like this.”

TRRT: What improvements have been made to the house in your lifetime?

Mrs. S.: “The most important thing we did was to maintain it. When you own a house, there is always something to do, and since I inherited it, we did so many things … My father, mother, brother and I moved in in 1926. We came from Chicago in 1917 and lived at 1216 S. Main until 1926. I was nine years old.”

TRRT: Were there any other houses in Rockford of this architectural style when you were growing up?

Mrs. S.: “I did not know if there were. But now I see one very much like it. I live in the northwest, and when I come back downtown, I have to take Court Street. This takes me to Winnebago [Street], and I see a very beuatiful limestone house that used to be Frank Houtkamp’s. It is very much like the Graham-Ginestra house.”

Mrs. Schmeltzer reflected on the background of the house she knows so well. “My parents were very, very old,” she recalled. “They had to try to take care of it themselves so they would not be a burden to me when I inherited the house in 1979. In 1980, we became a board of directors for the Graham-Ginestra house, and since I am the owner and curator, I also have been director because we didn’t have young board members to keep it up. Since women have gone to work for a paycheck, it was very difficult to get people on the board, and men were so busy with their jobs, you couldn’t get them for historic preservation. Someone said once that if we are going to look to the future, we have to look back to where we have been. Historic preservation is everyone’s business, and that is hard for people to understand. But I want you to know that because my parents made their livelihood in southwest Rockford, I want to give back something… I really enjoy The Rock River Times. I think it’s a great newspaper. TRRT: How has the house been able to remain secure?

Mrs. S.: “We have always had security for the house. So there was no threat to it because we had professional security. But even in my own home, when you take care of something, maintain it well, people will help you to maintain it. But if you let it go, they will help you to tear it down. They will help you destroy it.”

She also felt that the National Historic Registry was a boon for the house. “It’s a great protection for the house to be on the National Register of Historic Places because you cannot change the exterior of the house, and you can’t widen the street. I’m hoping people will realize that southwest Rockford is where Rockford began. It should be a historic district. The day will come that southwest Rockford is going to be recognized as the first place where our founders began, and it will become very valuable when people realize the historic value of it.”

Deb Sorensen, the new board director, explained how she met Mrs. Schmeltzer. “After I moved here in 1997, we met her and her husband at a neighborhood picnic. After her husband passed away, I went over to let her know I could help her with things. She said, ‘I would like to show you my other house.’ It was the Graham-Ginestra house. She asked me if I would like to help and be on the board, so I was a regular member first.”

TRRT: How has the house been affected by the changing neighborhood over the last few years?

Ms. Sorensen replied, “The house gets a lot of respect from that neighborhood. We have never had any problem. We appreciate that respect from that community and the people who live in the area. I talked to Blanca across the street at Taco Loco. I go over there when I garden and get something to eat. We have to cooperate with our neighbors and work with our neighbors. A couple of the young ladies carried food over for me, and they have been very gracious to me.”

She wanted to acknowledge the help of some young people who volunteered recently. “We had the Auburn High School Key Club here. Five wonderful young ladies came down and raked leaves. Their names were Kelly, Megan, Lou, Wendy and Krista.”

She looks forward to her new job as board director. “A lot of the board members are getting up in years. They said, ‘you would be really good at it.’ But I really do love the house. It’s very unique.”

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