By Craig Sterrett
TISKILWA — A young couple is working to save one of Tiskilwa’s biggest, most historic houses.
Just east of downtown at East Main and High streets, a 6,320-square-foot home with a massive, sagging wraparound porch and a rotting porch roof appears to be in far worse condition from the outside than it is in on the inside, says Arik Bowen, 30.
“We rented a house in the country when we moved back to Illinois, and we really didn’t think this house was much worse (inside),” says Tania Bowen, a 29-year-old Princeton High School graduate who studied history, social studies and English in college and teaches at Henry-Senachwine High School.Indeed, the Bowens had looked at the house this past fall before it went on the auction block, and from the street, the potential restoration job appeared extremely intimidating. One of the most prominent features of the house, an enormous porch, is badly weathered, rotting wood columns barely holding up a wavy roof. Paint is peeling from boards of the porch ceiling, and the brick foundation for the porch is falling apart.
“The (condition of the) porch really takes away from the rest of the house. It looks so bad,” Arik said.
However, he’s just about certain the massive, 4-foot square concrete pillars will support a restored porch nicely. Since the house, onetime home of former one-term U.S. Rep. Bradford Stevens, has a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, he has to follow U.S. Department of Interior rules. He might put the porch back the way it was, complete with crown moldings.
But Tania notes the porch on the front of the house now is not the first one for the house. She has photos of an original portico as well as a porch that had wood columns and decorative features popular in the late 1800s.
“Inside, it’s not that bad,” Arik said of the house. “I was blown away when I walked in here. I was just expecting a disaster.”
Parts of the house are quickly becoming livable again.
“We’re moving along well. It’s a slow process,” Tania said. “We bought the house because I love historic homes and my husband appreciates good carpentry.
“We’re not millionaires, so we have to take it one step at a time.”
She said they are not looking to turn a profit on the house. They plan to live there, take their time and fix things correctly as they go. She likes historic features and architecture and things that have a story, and Arik has an appreciation for the fine woodwork within the house.
“He likes to do projects and he likes to stay busy, and this house has a lot of projects,” she said.
The first step was keeping Mother Nature from destroying the home. Completing the roofing is putting a halt to water damage. And on the main floor, where the Bowens hope to reside later this winter, “there’s really not that much that needs to be done,” Arik says.
He says most of the needed restoration work doesn’t intimidate him much. And some spots need hardly any work at all. Previous owners maintained the wide entry hall, featuring 6-foot-tall panels rising up to eye level along all walls. Hiding behind the dilapidated porch is the nearly perfect, parquet-tile-floored and cherry wood entrance vestibule, complete with a heavy, immaculate, 4-foot by 8-foot solid cherry door with leaded glass.
The grand staircase remains intact, lit via a semicircular window which, he says, is beveled to direct light downward. Above one fireplace is a massive, circular mirror, framed heavily in mahogany. The circular mirror complements the architectural tone set by a round window at the front of the attic.
Bowen, a longtimeMichiganresident, he operated a small construction company there, and when the economy went bad and competition for work became fierce, his wife took a teaching job in Henry.
He eventually landed a job handling restoration work, such as repairs after fires, for Servicemaster. They picked up the house for $60,000 at auction in October, and they started spending much of their free time at the house. He got to work re-roofing the house, stripping off three layers of asphalt shingles and one of cedar shakes. He put up a pitched roof to replace a flat one above the grand staircase and the circa-1900 second-story addition to the rear servants’ quarters. That 100-year-old addition includes a two-story solarium bordered on two sides by old but operational wood casement windows.
He corrected leaks around some of the house’s four chimneys, had a furnace installed in the attic and plans to install small wood-burning stove insert kits into some of the four fireplaces.
Tania says members of the community have been wishing them well. An older resident told them descendants of the Stevenses used to give out nickels to trick-or-treaters at Halloween. She said many have shared stories and history about the house that she did not know. Some younger residents have been supportive, too. For example, a group of high-school-age students helped when Arik was tearing off the old roof, and one stranger came by with hot cinnamon rolls for them on the cool, autumn day.
“Anytime people have gone by, they’re always kind and excited to see someone working on the house,” Tania said.
Stan Bensen, an officer with Tiskilwa Historical Society, said the society briefly considered a purchase of the home.
“The historical society’s feeling was, if they had given it to us, we couldn’t have afforded to do what needed to do with it to make it a museum. The person that bought it has a lot of work ahead of them. But they are a family of journeyman kind of people who have the knowledge and experience,” Bensen said.
He agrees that the first step was fixing the roof. He said he was inside it two years ago on a rainy day in July, before the husband who was living in the house had died. He said they went upstairs and water was raining down to the second floor.
“As far as the community goes, anything they do to the house to help maintain its life, people are happy about,” Bensen said. He said he has an old house in town he has been working on for about six years and he can only imagine the work Arik Bowen needs in the Stevens house. “I wish him the best. I’m glad it’s not me.”
In addition to the major front porch repairs and reconstruction, Bowens still has some tough tasks, such as deciding whether to un-bow one sagging beam and repairing water damage from second-story ceilings and walls below the former flat-roofed areas. Tania said the damage in the solarium should not be difficult to correct, since the damaged plaster and lath for the circa-1900 addition is attached directly to a former exterior, 10-inch-thick, brick wall. So, they won’t have to demolish studs and do much reframing there.
He said most of the hardwood flooring on the second floor should be OK after some buffing. He pointed to one damaged area and said there’s a Tiskilwa resident who can re-lace and replace some of the old, narrow, damaged flooring in a spot near the grand staircase.
He said he and his wife are considering using the living-room-sized gentleman’s parlor as a master bedroom, since it has two walk-in closets with massive built-in dressers. Or they could use the existing master, above that, with its clawfoot tub and one walk-in closet.
Bowen said Tiskilwa residents have told him they’re glad to see someone trying to work on the place.
After all, he may well be saving this old house. He said it probably would have deteriorated beyond repair “if nobody would have bought it within the next five years.”
Craig Sterrett can be reached at (815) 223-3206 Ext. 135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Stevens house
Location, location, location: South side ofMain Streetat the intersection withHigh Street, eastof downtown Tiskilwa.
Size: Two stories, plus attics and basement; 6,320 square feet.
Architecture: Built with elements of Greek Revival style. Renovation circa 1900 added Colonial Revival touches.
Constructed: Circa 1842-43. Became home for B.N. Stevens, son of one of the Tiskilwa area’s original settlers, John Stevens. Additions included cornices added as trim; changes to and reconstruction of front porches in the late 1800s and early 1900s; circa-1900 second-story addition to rear servants’ quarters and above kitchen; two-story wood-frame solarium with crank-out casement windows around the same time as the rear (brick) expansion; new pitched (hip) roof addition in 2008 over former flat-roofed sections.
About Bradford Newcomb Stevens: … a U.S. Representative from Illinois; born in 1813 in Boscawen, Merrimack County, N.H. (now known as Webster, N.H., named for Daniel Webster, who purchased land from John Stevens); attended schools in New Hampshire and Montreal, Canada, and was graduated from Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H., in 1835; taught school six years in Hopkinsville, Ky., and New York City; moved to Bureau County about 1846; engaged in mercantile and agricultural pursuits; county surveyor; mayor of Tiskilwa; elected as a Democrat to the 42nd Congress (March 4, 1871-March 3, 1873); resumed mercantile and agricultural pursuits; died in Tiskilwa on Nov. 10, 1885; interment in Mount Bloom Cemetery, according to the biographical directory of the U.S. Congress.
In the 1800s, he was the only Democrat congressman elected from his county and served nine years as township supervisor despite being in a mostly-Republican township.
New owner Tania (Waldo) Bowen said Stevens family members at one point owned the Italianate home (formerly the late Bud Rosenquist’s home andCountry Laneantiques business) just to the southeast of the house and behind the current post office. Bradford’s father, John, had enteredIllinoisterritory in 1835 to buy land, and settled in Indiantown (now Tiskilwa) in 1842. He had owned a quarry and brick business near Tiskilwa and eventually was in business along with sons Bradford and Justus, whose orange-brick home can be seen east of the Soldiers andSailorsParkcircle atPark Avenue EastandChurch StreetinPrinceton. The Stevenses operated a mercantile business, J. Stevens & Sons, also shipping grain and agricultural products through much of northern and central Illinois, as far east as Chicago and south to St. Louis.
Justus was influential in foundingPrincetonschools and development of the city and was an early director of the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad.
Bradford Stevens was a co-founder of the Tiskilwa Bank, according to an 1885 “History of Bureau County.”
Tania Bowen notes Alden Stevens was born and died in the house, and B.N. Stevens II lived in the house until the 1960s.
Sources: owner Tania (Waldo) Bowen; biographical directory to the United States Congress; and Tampico Historical Society/Bureau Bios through “History of Bureau County, IL”; H. C. Bradsby, Editor; Chicago: World Publishing Co., 1885