Welcome back Pedaling Preservation, October edition. This post, we decided to branch out to the west side of the Fox, a first for us at PP (not in real life, just in terms of the blog).
We have thought about the many wonderful places on the west side of Elgin we could post about but, ultimately, we chose the beautiful Larkin Center to use for our first post not immediately situated in the downtown vicinity.
Located at 1212 Larkin Avenue, the facade faces south and is situated with an expansive setback from the road which simultaneously promotes the building’s grandness and the large old trees in the front yard as well as the emptiness of an institution that is no longer occupies the space. In 2013, the 117 year run of The Larkin Center ended when it closed its doors.
Just seven years prior, in 2004, The Larkin Center was approved as a Local Landmark in Elgin. Unlike many of the buildings featured on Pedaling Preservation, its history is not directly shaped by the historic districts nearby, and it does not sit within the boundaries of any historic districts, as the west side only includes one HD: the Bungalow Thematic Historic District.
Rather, the history is shaped by a woman named Mary Peabody who began caring for children at her own home until her popular services outgrew not one, but two, buildings — leading to the construction of 1212 Larkin Avenue. Both the Larkin Center and the Avenue were named after Cyrus Larkin, a local farmer and political figure who aided greatly to the cause, asking only that the Larkin Center be named after his mother. The history of the Larkin Center’s building at 1212 Larkin Avenue also experienced the graciousness of a philanthropic and prosperous Elgin community. We will put a pin in these narratives and return to them in the history section.
The Larkin Center was built by George Morris who designed a number of Elgin’s well-known structures including both the original St. Joseph and Sherman hospitals and the Scanlan Bath House in Wing Park.
Of the Colonial Revival style, it is indicative of the larger historical context from when Elgin’s success tangibly sprawled west. As you may recall, we have not only seen this style of architecture in other PP posts, but also many buildings from roughly the same time period. What this means is that while The Larkin Center is located in an area unlike those buildings along the riverfront, and away from Elgin’s National Historic Districts, the architecture still tells a story from the same time with common themes.
I’m going to quote a bit directly from the Elgin Design Guideline Manual, which is put out by the City of Elgin and its Heritage Commission:
“The Colonial Revival style was one of the most popular architectural styles of the early 20th century. During the 1890s, there was renewed interest in the architectural forms of Colonial America. These dwellings were built with symmetrical floor plans and with classically detailed formal porches…Dwellings of this style were constructed both of brick and frame and are generally two-stories in height.”
Common features exhibited at 1212 Larkin Ave. include:
- Gable dormers
- Eave dentils
- decorative balustrade
- an accentuated entrance door with fanlights or sidelights (both here)
- porches with eave dentils and Tuscan columns
Other decorative elements can include:
- decorative window hoods (these would not technically be window hoods in the strictest definition, however, but works well enough for the brevity of this bullet point)
The last two bullet points are actually more often attributed to the Classical Revival style, a subset of the Colonial Revival style, therefore speaking to the fluidity inherent in architecture. Rather rarely, in fact, is a home or building not influenced in some way by more than one style. It is a simultaneous nod to style as well as taste, both of which act as an indicator of the time.
I have been really excited about this post for many reasons, but one is the way the property grew during times of peak growth for the center and the mission of the center. As you can see, while this picture shows a building that is comparatively much more vernacular, it carries over a few of the same character defining features including the decoration above the windows, the symmetry, and the side lights at the front entry door.
The story of the Larkin Center beings when Mary Peabody began taking care of her neighbor’s children at her home along St. Charles street in Elgin in the late 1800s after a few of her neighbors experienced family tragedies resulting in the loss of one or both parents.
Other children in the area were in similar situations, and as word spread, it became clear that the home in which “Mary Peabody’s Home for Babies’ — as it came to be called — would no longer suffice. Growing numbers of children in need required a larger space for care.
At the same time, volunteers throughout the community began donating to a public fund created for Mrs. Peabody and in 1898, Mary and 30 of her children moved to 685 E. Chicago Street. As much help as the public fund and caring community were for Peabody’s services, Cyrus Larkin, a wealthy farmer and politician, came through by donating an even larger home of 11-rooms at 320 S. State Street on the stipulation that the home change its name to reflect that of his late mother, Sarah A. Larkin.
The Larkin Home for Children was officially established in 1902. Less than 10 years later, the Center’s needs again required a move and purchased 3.5 acres of land along what is now Larkin Avenue, just south of Highland Elementary. It was on this newly acquired land that the Larkin Home for Children building as we know it today came into being, and it was an effort by the community through and through.
When construction costs came in at well over $20,000, the community quickly rushed to help. The then-president of the Elgin National Watch Company donated $500 personally to help pay off debts. Numerous other Elginites donated what they could to help mitigate the financial burden. Members of the community helped in larger ways as well, like when a local pastor created a festival called the “Xaragua Bazaar,” which was a Mardi Gras-style festival established to raise funds to pay off the remaining debt.
Other street carnivals remained popular in Elgin in the early-1900s. From E.C. Alft’s “Elgin: Days Gone By:”
“[One such street carnival] was organized by the Elgin street fair company for the benefit of the Larkin Home for children. It was supported by contributions from businesses hoping to profit from the crowds attracted by the festivities. Local attendance was swelled by visitors from nearby towns and cities.”
While Elgin is, of course, one of the greatest cities ever, much of this community-wide support is rooted in broader ideas of progressivism popular at the time. I’ve written about this historical period before to contextualize my very first Pedaling Preservation post about Tammen Hall when I still lived in Denver. I write:
I think what is interesting is that this really lines up within the historical context of the Progressive Era. Generally acknowledged to start in the 1890s and extend into the 1920s in America, the Progressive Era was all about bettering oneself and others. For example, remember Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle? It exposed the absolutely terrible working conditions in Chicago’s meat packing plants. Well one real-life thing that came out of that was the 1906 Meat Inspection Act which essentially stipulated that meat plants must produce meat that was fit for human consumption (no wayyyyy), regulated inspections and made it so accurate labels were to be placed on the meat.
A more congruent contextual comparison in terms of Tammen Hall and the Progressive Era I think is the settlement house movement in America. It was a social reform movement that sought to help immigrants by providing education, daycare, and housing. [For more about settlement houses read here.] While settlement houses peaked in the 1920s and still linger on in some capacities presently, their roots certainly begin in the Progressive reform era. With the construction of many surrounding buildings to accommodate living quarters for the nurses, gymnasiums, learning centers as well as the medical facilities, I think Tammen Hall is well situated in this context.
Wow, I used to be much snarkier. I guess that was 2014, I’m much older and wiser now, I suppose.
While some of the Tammen Hall connections do not line up exactly with this Children’s home that eventually transitioned into a youth residential and mental health counseling facility, I think the larger notions exhibited by the Progressive Era and its proponents relate.
what is it today?:
The Larkin Center closed in 2013, simultaneously quieting 117 years of history. Today, it is an empty building waiting to be sold.
Building photo credits as always go to: http://www.merichmondart.com/
McAlister, Lee and Virginia. A Field Guide to American Houses. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
“Design Guideline Manual for Landmarks and Historic Districts” by the Elgin Heritage Commission and the City of Elgin (pg. 34)
“A History of Elgin History” by E.C. Alft (pg. 16)