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The Landmarks of Barb City - Part 33

308 Augusta Ave. on Sept. 13

The two-story stuccoed house at 308 Augusta Ave. is yet another of the 5th Ward North Historic District's ensemble of homes rendered in Prairie-style architecture. Believed to date from 1904, it was the "Residence of E.J. Wiswall." Etna J. Wiswall was a Wisconsin native, born there in 1855, as was his wife, Elva, who was some 10 months older than he, according to the 1900 U.S. Census. They had then been married 19 years, being the parents of teenaged daughters, Vera and Hazel. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1880, spending the next six years as a high school principal. Early in 1887, the family moved to Illinois and to DeKalb, where Mr. Wiswall purchased the furniture business of P.C. Wagner at 161 E. Main St. - now Lincoln Highway. The 1892 "DeKalb Chronicle Illustrated Souvenir Edition" recounted how his business continued growing by leaps and bounds, and so by 1894 he chose to open a second store in Malta. The stores were known for their wide-ranging inventory, catering to people from all economic levels. Undertaking services also were available. In 1899, Mr. Wiswall moved his DeKalb store, which was by then bursting at the seams, to 142 E. Main St., to a building that was constructed specifically to function as a furniture store. The cornice atop the front of the structure proudly bore his name - "E.J. Wiswall." Subsequent remodeling of the façade removed this and other architectural adornments, including a four-sided display window on the ground floor. The Wiswall family long resided in the working-clas south-side neighborhood near Huntley Park. By 1904, however, they were ready to relocate to a brand new house in the trendy Ellwood "Horseshoe" Addition to the city of DeKalb. The lot they selected was on the southwest corner of Augusta and Park avenues, which then became 308 Augusta. Their new home would prove a far cry architecturally from what they were accustomed to. E.E. Roberts of Oak Park may have drawn the plans The Wiswalls displayed their taste and affluence by hiring an already prominent Oak Park architect, who was well versed in the Prairie style of design, to come up with a plan for them. Eben Ezra Roberts (also known as E.E. Roberts) is generally credited with having won the commission. 308 Augusta bears strong resemblance to a series of box-like homes done by him between 1903 and 1910 in that western Chicago suburb. The Frank W. Hall House, at 412 Clinton Ave. in Oak Park, may well have served as the model for 308 Augusta. That 100-year-old residence is two stories high, rectangular in shape, hip-roofed, with overhanging eaves and a full-width front porch. Also, as seen in that building, the ground floor, porch pillars and stair newels are wood, while the upper-wall surfaces are rendered in stucco. Two wooden pillars support the overhangs of the porch roof, while a stringcourse encircles the house between the floors. It has one hipped-roof dormer centered on the front roof, and at the second-floor corners, groups of three windows are placed to either side. The Wiswall House in DeKalb is quite similar in appearance, being somewhat more picturesque, though. It also is two stories high, but not perfectly square or rectangular, as bays project from the two street sides. The main roof is hipped, with broad overhangs and hip-roofed dormers. Covered entirely in stucco, there are several sturdy pillars of this material supporting the porch roof overhangs. The porch takes full advantage of the corner lot, not only extending completely across the front but also wrapping around a portion of the east side. None of Roberts' Oak Park creations contain wrap-around porches, as they are situated on narrow, mid-block lots. Flanking the northeast corner of the second floor are pairs of windows to either side. The chocolate-painted stringcourse between the floors delineates the division from one to the other, while the house itself is surfaced in gray. Since the time I originally began researching whether the Wiswall House had a connection to the work of E.E. Roberts, I have discussed the possibilitiy with other preservationists acquainted with his work. When DeKalb hosted the Illinois Historic Preservation Conference in June 1994, for example, Frank Heitzman - an Oak Park architect familiar with Roberts and a member of the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission - examined the house with me and expressed his opinion that it was indeed an E.E. Roberts building. Wiswall family letters at the Joiner History Room When the previous owners were going through things in preparation for selling the house after nearly 25 years and moving out of state, they made a surprising discovery in the attic. A sizeable collection of Wiswall family letters were found, dating from between 1906 and 1946. Mrs. Wiswall and her daughters exchanged mail regularly during those years when the girls were away attending school, etc., and "Mama" kept them all stored up there. After spinster daughter Hazel Wiswall died around 1927, and the house was readied for sale - following almost 70 years of family occupancy - the old correspondence went undetected, continuing to collect dust over the succeeding years as a result. Finally now they again saw the light of day, eventually finding their way to the Joiner History Room in Sycamore, to become part of that archival facility's holdings. Among the many topics dealt with were family and business happenings, local news, gossip, etc. - all of which make for interesting reading.

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