The Sycamore Historic District: Location 2 By Steve Bigolin
One of Sycamore's most impressive-looking late-19th-century houses sits atop a hill and adjacent to Towne Square Restaurant. Reputedly built as a wedding present for its original owner, 331 N. Main St. was the “Residence of F.B. Townsend.” A native son of DeKalb County, born on a Malta Township farm in 1858, Frederick B. Townsend belonged to a most distinguished family tree. His paternal great-grandfather arrived in Mayfield Township in 1849. His maternal great-grandfather, Daniel Pierce, was in 1867 the founder of what became The National Bank & Trust Co. In 1890, Townsend wed Mary Boynton, daughter of Charles O. Boynton, a prominent moneylender, land speculator and community leader. Fred and Mary became the parents of Charles and Eleanor, the latter of whom married Thomas H. Roberts of Clinton Township in 1920. Townsend helped found the DeKalb County Farm Bureau in 1912, and his son-in-law followed in his agricultural footsteps. Tom Roberts founded DeKalb Ag, later known as DeKalb Genetics Corp., which merged with Monsanto in 1998. This is a classic example of a family and their residence being of nearly equal historical significance. Sources with information about the Townsend, Pierce, Boynton and Roberts families include “Portrait and Biographical Album of DeKalb County, Illinois,” “Biographical Record of DeKalb County, Illinois,” ”From Oxen to Jets” and “The Story of the DeKalb Ag.” Contractor William J. McAlpine, who moved to Sycamore in 1873, designed and constructed the Townsend House. For several years he was in partnership with Hosea Willard at the firm of Willard & McAlpine. The 1885 “Portrait and Biographical Album of DeKalb County, Illinois” said that “their buildings at Sycamore comprise the Congregational Church and a number of prominent residences.” McAlpine later moved to Dixon and gained celebrity as the general contractor of what is today Altgeld Hall at Northern Illinois University, as well as of the Lee County Courthouse at Dixon and the DeKalb County Courthouse. While the romantic story is told of how Fred and Mary Townsend received the mansion from her father, Charles O. Boynton, as a wedding present in 1890, the Sycamore True Republican of May 14, 1892, recounts that it was new at that time. McAlpine created for the Townsends a very picturesque Queen Anne-style house. The 1906 “Illustrated Prospectus of Sycamore, Illinois” opined that “Mr. Townsend's residence on North Main Street is one of the most handsome in the county, and occupies extensive grounds, covering two acres.” As with the Townsend garage of 1906 - now Towne Square Restaurant - the mansion has a lower façade of granite boulders, hauled from the 25 DeKalb County farms owned by Mr. Townsend. Wrapping around the house, to the north from the front door, is a distinctive porch with a porte-cochere. The foundation is granite boulders, topped by decorative wooden pillars. Many first-floor windows have transoms of leaded or stained glass. Half-timbering and balconies draw one's eye to the second floor. The structure is capped by a multi-gabled roof. The east and south gables contain large Palladian windows. The unusual south gable displays an “M-roof” in which two gables intersect with a valley between them, thereby forming something of an M shape. (This term is found in Cyril M. Harris' “American Architecture: An Illustrated Encyclopedia.”) Another striking third-floor feature is the enclosed tower on the north side. This space is capped by a conical roof and is accessed only from the attic of the house. Fred Townsend was forced to sell his grand hilltop mansion following a financial reversal in 1912. The house continued serving as a private residence until 1980 when it was converted to business uses. It was recently sold to a married couple who will convert it into The Paper Doll House, a bed-and-breakfast that will cater to people who enjoy scrapbooking.