BLOOMINGTON — Visible changes at one of Bloomington's most notable historic homes have more than a few people curious.
The changes at Gray Ledges have attracted a steady stream of people walking or driving by to photograph the striking residence Spencer and Lena Ewing had Prairie-style architect John S. Van Bergen build in 1920-21 at 1706 E. Washington St.
"I've gotten a crazy number of calls," said the property's new owner, Greg Shepard. "People are asking me if I am tearing down the house and building apartments. They're drawing all sorts of conclusions."
To the contrary, Shepard said he is having the house restored and that his son plans to live there.
"Having the sign out there hasn't helped," said Shepard, referring to a sign the city put up along Washington Street near Mercer Avenue that incorrectly stated the property was the subject of a hearing related to an annexation agreement.
The Zoning Board of Appeals hearing at 4 p.m. Wednesday is actually about a variance for a fence Shepard wants to erect, said city Community Development Director Tom Dabareiner. Staff members have notified residents in the neighborhood of the hearing's correct purpose, he added.
Dabareiner's department received six phone calls from people mainly concerned "about what was happening to the house and whether it was going to come down," he said.
Shepard, a lawyer and a Shepard family heir who lives on nearby Country Club Place, recently purchased Gray Ledges and adjacent lots at 1700 East Washington and 24 and 26 Country Club Place, totaling about 4.5 acres, from Frances Owen for $1.1 million, according to McLean County assessor's office documents.
In 1952, Gray Ledges was sold by the Ewing family to James and Marie Owen, the owners of Owen Nursery in Bloomington. Over the years, the Owen family heavily screened the house and grounds with natural materials, including rows of trees that blocked a view of the house from the street.
To make way for the fence, Shepard is having the dense woodland and foliage removed. In the process, Gray Ledges is now visible to passersby.
Shepard said he wants the fence to be identical to the one in front of Ewing Manor that was built between 1927-1929 by Spencer Ewing’s brother and sister-in-law, Davis and Hazle Buck Ewing, along Towanda Avenue in Bloomington.
The wrought iron fence with stone piers is 4 feet 10 inches in height — 10 inches higher than the city's maximum of 4 feet allowed in a residential neighborhood. That is why he will need a variance from the city.
The Ewing Manor fence came to Shepard's attention while he was organizing a fundraiser for the David Davis Mansion Foundation.
Shepard opened up Gray Ledges on Aug. 29 for tours of the house and garden walks. The event drew 485 people and raised $12,125 for the foundation, he said.
City staff is recommending approval because the fence design improves visibility and sight lines, is compatible with surrounding properties, and honors both Ewing homes.
Gray Ledges also is noted for its original landscaping by Jens Jensen, who is considered to be the founder of the “Prairie School” movement that uses plants and trees native to Central Illinois.
Many of those historical plantings already were altered by previous owners, "so the Shepard family is not removing a historic (landscape) feature," said Greg Koos, executive director of the McLean County Museum of History.
Shepard mistakenly removed some trees along Mercer Avenue that belonged to the city, said Jay Tetzloff, director of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts, whose department oversees the management of city-owned trees.
Even though there is no sidewalk on Mercer, which makes determining the city's right-of-way more clear cut, "We believe those were city trees," said Tetzloff, adding, "Right now, we're not going forward with any action" related to trees' removal.
As of Monday, the city had not received any complaints about the trees cut down, said Communication Manager Nora Dukowitz.