Historical home: A message in a bottle

Historical home

Homes: Historical home

Historical home: A message in a bottle

Historical home

Story: Bridget Broihahn

Photos: Heather Coit and Bridget Broihahn

A block west of historic “millionaires row” — State Street in Monticello — is the North Charter Street home of Maureen “Mo” and Ryan Tracy. This beautiful Victorian Italianate-style home is a classic beauty that was built in the mid- to late 1800s. It’s a very beautiful, one-of-a-kind home that is equally rich in its history.

They met far from home

The Tracys met in Washington, D.C., while involved in their careers. There is an irony about this, too.

“We both attended the University of Illinois,” Mo Tracy said.

There’s more. Mo is a native of Aurora, and Ryan grew up in Monticello.

Soon Illinois was calling them home. Now the couple, their daughters; Vivian, almost 5 years old, and Alice, not quite a year old, live just a block or so from the historic Monticello home where Ryan grew up.

Funny how a “sign” can make a decision to move home much easier.

“An old roommate from West Virginia found this bottle at an antique sale,” Mo said from the front room of her home. She held up a sage green Dr. William Caldwell’s Syrup Pepsin bottle.

On the side of the bottle in bold letters is: “Monticello, Illinois.”

Mo’s friend knew that they were considering a move to Monticello, so she purchased the bottle and gave it to Mo. What Mo’s friend didn’t know was the home they were considering purchasing was the very same home Caldwell and his family lived in during his career in Monticello.

The bottle sits proudly in the front room, finally back home in Monticello.

Historical home owners

In 1885, Dr. William Burr Caldwell moved his medical practice to Monticello. He and his wife, Mary lived in the North Charter Street house, along with their five kids: Frank, Charles, William, Pearl and Mary Lee. His homemade mixture of senna and pepsin was manufactured in Monticello under the name of the Syrup Pepsin Co. The company put Monticello on the map. It grew so fast that by 1902, it needed a bigger facility.

A more recent but nonetheless important owner of the North Charter Street house was Lena Bragg. She was a resident of the Italianate for over 40 years. She was the librarian of the Allerton Library from 1913 until 1955. The Tracys have a plaque of the library in the front room of their home as a tribute to the library and its renowned librarian.

The North Charter Street home was segmented for a time into apartments, and was referred to as the “house that looked like a steamboat.”

Styled from the countryside — Italy, that is.

This type of home design, Italianate, was inspired by medieval farmhouses that fit into the Italian countryside. They were elegant, but fit into the rustic and rocky countryside. They have evolved here in the United States, in form and function, and are considered a type and subset of the Plantation-style home.

There are many types of Plantation-style homes: Italianate, Greek revival, Neo-classical and Federal-style. All feature very welcoming, soaring columned porches that extend across the front and are sometimes stacked over two to four stories of the home. The first Italian-style house plans probably appeared in America in the 1830s and remained popular through the end of the century.

This home was sitting empty for a little while.

“It was on the market for several years,” Mo said.

It was calling to them, however. It needed some TLC.

“It was pink. We painted it blue,” Mo said.

The North Charter Street home has two windows and a door on each floor of the front facade, so the Tracys are able to enjoy the wide porch on both the first and second levels of their home. Tall French windows let natural sunlight into the gracious interiors and easily cool those interiors when open. The tall windows lend a bit of formality to the often comfortable and easy layout of these homes designed to resemble Italian villas. The windows have ornate profile molding.

“It reminded us of the homes in D.C.,” Mo said.

It had so much potential and had good bones.

“It’s a four-bedroom house, so we could expand,” she said.

Italian-style homes almost always feature a low-pitched hipped or flat roof with wide, overhanging eaves supported by decorative brackets. The Tracy house has a low-pitched roof with a square cupola — often locally referred to as a “crow’s nest.”

“It is really hard to access it, because the opening is so small,” Mo said of the cupola.

The average height of a grown man in the mid-1800s, when the Tracy home was built, was 5 feet 3 inches tall. So, of course, the home was built with smaller people in mind. The Tracys had to boost the stairwell banister several inches because it was not safe at the height it was when they purchased the home. It’s difficult to discern that the banister was changed at all.

The elaborate details of an Italianate-style home usually include balustrades. What is a balustrade? They are pretty common. They consist of a row of small columns topped by a rail, and even though they are ornate, their main function is to keep people from falling off of a stairway or terrace, as in the case of the facade of the North Charter Street home. The word is a form of the name for posts or balusters, and it comes from “balaustra,” an Italian word for pomegranate blossoms.

Current history

The Tracys have remodeled the home quite extensively.  At times it was an upheaval. Careers, two small children and the daily life of family made each transition an adventure for them.

“I was pregnant with Vivian when we opened up and remodeled the kitchen,” she said.

Each room has been touched to some degree and revamped. They painted both inside and out. They put in new wallpaper, careful to stay in theme with their historical home. The stairwell renovation was accompanied by limestone tile installed into the foyer, as well as new stairwell carpeting.

“We want to protect the integrity of the house and its history,” Mo said.

An updated kitchen still lends to the historical value but brings the home into this century. There are many textures in the kitchen with granite countertops, white baseboards and cabinetry, wide-planked wood flooring, antique cobbled brick, the finials on the island, stainless-steel appliances, and the timeless and classic running bond-style wall tile — always a perennial favorite. The kitchen is functional, yet inviting and comfortable, encouraging the gathering of family.

Next to the kitchen is the suds-and-pub combination laundry area that easily converts into a bar and serving area when guests arrive. It is adjacent to the living area where natural light floods the room, making it the perfect combination of form and function.

The playroom is an impressive space, that is right off of the living area. It was a deck turned screened porch, and eventually turned three seasons room, and finally into the area that entertains the kids and their playmates. It brings the outside inside for the feeling of a natural play space.

The North Charter Street home is beautiful, but pragmatic, functional, but lovely. It’s truly a piece of Monticello history.  =