Efforts under way to save Freeport’s historic City Hall

Freeport City Hall (Photo provided by Kay Ostberg).
Freeport City Hall (Photo provided by Kay Ostberg).

By Kay Ostberg

FREEPORT, Ill. — The contrast was jarring when a picture of the historic steepled Stephenson County Courthouse and the box building that replaced it appeared side by side in Dr. Andy Dvorak’s presentation Thursday night, May 29, at the Freeport Public Library. His presentation was titled “A Tale of Two Landmarks: Freeport City Hall and the Stephenson County Courthouse.”

Dr. Dvorak is a 20-year history and political science instructor at Highland Community College in Freeport, and he did much of his research with his wife, Susie Dvorak, at the Frances Woodward Local History Room.

The event was hosted by the Citizens for Saving Freeport City Hall in an effort to prevent Freeport from making the same mistake twice: demolishing a historic landmark and replacing it with a substandard facility.

An audible gasp came from the 70 or so attendees at the presentation as a slide showing a wrecking ball colliding with the courthouse was followed by a photograph of the “new” courthouse, described by a Chicago architect firm at the time as not meeting the norm of an institutional building in design, quality or appearance.

While more than 7,500 people signed petitions to save the courthouse, a national historic landmark, and the mayor and city council denied a permit to demolish the building, as Dr. Dvorak explained: “The idea was to get rid of the old and bring in the ‘modern.’ Unlike many other Midwestern communities that restored older landmarks and revitalized their downtown, Stephenson County razed the building, and citizens’ anger over this decision persists to this day — 40 years later. However, this talk is not just to analyze our history, it is about not making the same mistake with Freeport City Hall.”

For more than two years, Freeport’s leaders have been wrestling with the question of what to do with the building, which fell into disrepair during the previous 20 years and was vacated in November 2011. Currently, the city is renting space on the third floor of 524 E. Stephenson St. for approximately $75,000 a year.

Since vacating City Hall, surveys by historic architects, borings by structural engineers and repeated assessments of the building have found it structurally sound. Dr. Dvorak discussed these findings and concluded that, “not only could City Hall anchor historic downtown Freeport for another hundred years, it could accommodate additional government services, have space for added features such as a community event hall, and benefit from a cost-saving, environmentally friendly design.”

In answer to a question about how Freeport can afford to restore City Hall, Dr. Dvorak said: “We will have to spend money on some alternative. This is the best alternative financially, especially when you consider it would cost approximately $450,000 to $500,000 to knock down and remove the remains of City Hall. The building is functionally set up to house city services, and it could help boost tourist interest in downtown. Certainly, we can’t continue to throw hundreds of thousands of dollars away on rent when this historic landmark remains vacant.”

The “Noble Women of City Hall” were also unveiled at the event — three costumed women bringing to life the ideals of “truth,” “justice” and “government” depicted in one City Hall fresco hidden long ago by dropped ceilings. This fresco, according to Deb Elzinga, one of the founders of the Save the City Hall group, “is just one of the art and architectural treasures our city would lose if the building is not given proper historic restoration.”

Other notable features of the 1899 building that were built with the highest quality materials available include a domed ceiling in the city council chambers, mosaic tiles of French, Italian, Belgian, Tennessee, African and Irish marble, a grand marble staircase, and a rare red sandstone façade.

The Noble Women will make appearances at Freeport events throughout the summer to draw attention to what could be lost to Freeport. At each appearance, visitors will be given the opportunity to fill out a postcard using 15 words or fewer imagining what the Noble Women in the fresco would say about City Hall if they could speak.

Freeport Mayor Jim Gitz and Freeport City Council members have indicated a willingness to move back into City Hall if the citizens of Freeport support this decision. To measure this support, the city will be using a number of methods to solicit opinions, including an online survey to be announced in a postcard mailed to every household in Freeport.

As Dr. Dvorak counsels all who consider this decision: “Remember, City Hall was designed and built in an era that prized architecture as an expression of the value of the community. Freeport’s downtown viability and critical historic roots rest in preserving our past, much of which is contained in this surviving building. It is up to us to save Freeport City Hall.”

From the June 4-10, 2014, issue

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