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The Landmarks of Barb City - Part 24B

The Museum House in 1986. Provided photo

The Classical Revival-style building in the garden area south of Ellwood House was the first of two structures erected during the early 1900s on the grounds, and the last for the Isaac Ellwoods. It was pictured in the 1907 county history "Past And Present of DeKalb County, Illinois" as the "Museum of Mrs. I.L. Ellwood." According to oral tradition, Harriet Ellwood collected so many different kinds of antiques, souvenirs, knickknacks, collectibles and what have you that after 25 years of living with them underfoot in the mansion, Isaac Ellwood told his wife that something needed to be done about her many "curiosities." The matter got resolved through construction of the little building that in later years was referred to by family members as the "Curiosity Shop." As the Museum House stands today, its exterior again appears much the same as it did when the building was new around 1905. Following Mrs. Ellwood's death in July 1910, the many objects remained inside the building while it gradually began to deteriorate. Perry Ellwood's son-in-law, Joseph W. Towle, told me years ago that when he and Patty Ellwood were married in the rose garden in 1934, the building was already in serious need of repair. When I originally saw it in 1972, both porches were long gone, and only the north door provided access to the interior. More than 10 years passed, however, between the house opening to the public and the start of restoration of this building. Plans for the project were announced to the membership prior to work beginning. This elicited an unexpected inquiry from John Ellwood, youngest child of the Perry Ellwoods. I was on the board of directors of Ellwood House at that time. John Ellwood contacted us, asking if we might like back the building's original plans, which he had in his possession. Needless to say, we jumped at the opportunity to reacquire them. The architect turned out to be not Charles E. Brush, who remodeled the mansion for Isaac and Harriet Ellwood in 1898. The name on the plans is that of William S. Ralph of Oak Park. There is no date on the plans, however. Some characteristics mimic main house The brick superstructure of the building rises from a stone base, with a water table visible, as well. Obviously imitative of the Classical Revival remodeling of the mansion in 1898, the porches here sport Ionic columns supporting entablatures, below balustraded balconies. The distinctive hip roof atop the Museum House is mirrored by small hip roofs on the dormers. A brick chimney rising above the south wall hints at there being a fireplace or two within. The dormer here is wider than its counterparts, as the chimney is part of it, the window balanced by a brick panel at the other side of the chimney. The outside door locks are original from 1905 - long believed to be when the Museum House was constructed - and are rather distinctive. They were referred to as being "post office" locks, according to a local locksmith in the late 1970s who was hired to rekey them during the restoration, as they were U.S. government issue. One needs to remember that DeKalb's Beaux-Arts post office at 100 W. Lincoln Highway (now the site of the Walgreens parking lot) was then under construction, with the U.S. Congress influenced by Isaac Ellwood to approve a $100,000 allocation for the new facility. It was no doubt easy enough for him to obtain a couple of extra government locks and hardware for his own personal use. Paths and walkways were variously interspersed throughout the grounds, providing convenient passage between the mansion and assorted outbuildings. As the east porch was of full length with four columns, it was probably intended as the main entrance, although this and the west end were the narrower façades. Distinctive stone lintels with center keystones top all the windows and both doors. Engaged brick pilasters near the corners of the east porch rest on stone bases. A similar pair flanks the door off the north porch, all of which is capped by simple stonework. Interior reveals a wealth of details The door from the east porch opens into a hall that both winds around to access the north door and enters the main center room. Built into one wall in the hall are sets of display cases with glass doors and adjustable shelves, flanking a door into the main room. Another interior door goes into a side gallery with similar cases and window seats. In the south wall of the center room is a brick fireplace rendered in Arts & Crafts style, with a wooden mantle shelf and flanking window seats. An oak plate rail partially encircles the room. Oak pillars separate the primary space from a small alcove with display cases on both sides. Another door opens to a hall, at the back end of which a half bath is found, containing a modern toilet and sink. (The historic fixtures, unfortunately, had seen much better days, and were disposed of.) Still another door accesses the west gallery. An oak staircase with a landing between the floors leads upstairs, which is one large, open room from end to end. A fireplace of similar brickwork to that downstairs - but smaller - is in the south wall, but also lacks a mantle shelf. For some 18 to 20 years, the Museum House served as the visitor center on the property. Guided tours started here, and exhibits were displayed in the north gallery and alcove cases. The building also housed the gift shop and the business office. The open layout of the second floor provided much-needed storage that was unavailable elsewhere.

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