NORMAL — Beginning in the 1960s, many fine, sturdy single-family homes dating from the 19th and early 20th centuries were unceremoniously bulldozed for Illinois State University off-campus housing. The greatest loss in this destructive — and at times unchecked — process was the 1856-1857 Jesse W. Fell house, located at 502 S. Fell Ave.
Born into a Pennsylvania Quaker family, Fell was 24 years old when he came to Central Illinois in 1832. He was the first lawyer in the new county seat of Bloomington, though he gave up a legal career in favor of land speculation and town development. He played an instrumental role in the establishment of the state’s first public institution of higher education (now ISU), and is considered the founder of not only the Town of Normal, but a half-dozen other communities, including nearby Clinton and El Paso, and Larchwood in the northwestern corner of Iowa.
Fell built his two-story, wood frame Federal-style house to serve as the centerpiece of a triangle-size, 15-acre parcel of landscaped grounds bordered on the north by the Chicago & Alton Railroad (today Union Pacific and Amtrak), the east by Broadway and south by Vernon Avenue. At this time, what we now know as Fell Avenue did not run north of Vernon, and Hester Avenue, Irving Street and the School Street underpass did not exist. If one overlaid Fell’s estate on today’s street layout, his house would’ve originally occupied the southwest corner of Broadway and Irving (it was subsequently moved to Fell Avenue).
The house was situated on high ground just southwest of the junction of the Illinois Central (today Constitution Trail) and C&A rail lines. When Normal was first platted in 1854, it was known as North Bloomington or simply “The Junction.”
Fell called his home and surrounding acreage “Greenwood,” though area residents (who were welcome to stroll the property on Sundays) preferred “Fell Park.” The attractive grounds were the work of William Saunders, a Scottish-born landscape designer from Philadelphia whose work included the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pa.
Harriet Fyffe Richardson recalled that her grandfather Fell’s property included: four or five deer; small orchards of apple, pear and peach trees; “extensive vineyards” of Concord, Delaware, Catawba and other grape varieties; a large strawberry patch; and two milch cows.
Visitors to Greenwood were said to include Abraham Lincoln, an associate and close political ally of Fell, abolitionist congressman Owen Lovejoy, education reformer Horace Mann, and the journalist and poet William Cullen Bryant.
After financial reverses, Fell foreclosed on Greenwood and moved two blocks south to 702 S. Broadway, and there he passed away in 1887. After his death, the grounds were platted into streets and residential lots, and the 1850s house moved several hundred yards west to the southeast corner of Fell and Irving, where it remained until its untimely demise.
F.W. Dooley and his wife Laura Rhodes purchased the house in December 1913, making drastic changes to both the interior and exterior, including removing the cupola and a Fell-era 1½-story addition. Removed at a later date were the east and west side verandas, giving the once-elegant structure a boxy, stripped-down look.
The last owner was Cushman Skinner, whose grandmother, Lucile Heckethorn, had held the house previously for some 30 years. Skinner rented the historic but deteriorating house to ISU students, though by the mid-1970s he decided to leave it vacant after several kids skipped town, saddling him with unpaid rent and utility bills.
Around this same time, Kevin and Pamela Kennedy, a local couple with an interest in preservation, had the house placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It also appeared on the Historic American Buildings Survey of 1936 and the Illinois Historic Landmark Survey of the early 1970s, though both designations, like the National Register one, did not prevent the owner from tearing it down.
There were several sketchy proposals to save the house, but Skinner, for reasons unknown, didn’t seem all that interested in such preservationist efforts. A group of prominent local residents, to cite one such attempt, held several meetings with Skinner’s attorney, but the two parties never reached a deal.
With little fanfare, the house came down in mid-August 1980. “Grooves and ruts from the tracks of heavy equipment are all that mark the lot,” noted The Pantagraph a week after a bulldozer completed its job. Today, a nondescript, barrack-like student apartment complex stands in its place, a reminder that progress, so-called, is not always synonymous with improvement.