The Sycamore Historic District: Location 4
By Steve Bigolin
The house on the northwest corner of West Exchange and North Main streets - 107 W. Exchange St. - has an unusually shaped front gable, yet it is a type that was relatively common in the 1850s and 1860s. This feature and the corner lot that the structure occupies help draw attention to the house that originally was the “Residence of Daniel B. James.” D.B. James was pictured and briefly discussed in the 1868 “History of DeKalb County, Illinois,” written by Henry L. Boies, editor of the Sycamore True Republican. The likeness of James was actually not a photograph, but a simple pen-and-ink sketch, which depicted him as a rather stern-looking man. James was born in Vermont in 1817. According to the 1860 U.S. Census, he arrived here from California in 1852. While living in New England, he practiced law in Lyndon, Vt. After settling in Sycamore, James became involved with the formation of the Republican Party, and in 1857 he was a founder of the newspaper the Sycamore True Republican. He was elected a county judge in 1865 and retained that post until 1869. Maps of Sycamore from 1892 and 1894 show just one other house in the 100 block of West Exchange Street, on the northeast corner of Exchange and North Maple streets. By the early 1900s or thereabouts, the previously undeveloped lots had been built upon. The James House was the oldest of the bunch, though, and retains a great degree of its historic charm. When the Sycamore Historic District achieved listing on the National Register of Historic Places in May 1978, a date of 1862 was attributed to this house. According to the Sycamore True Republican of Jan. 26, 1895, however, D.B. James had commissioned the firm of Hammond & Carlson to design the residence in 1858-9. The oddly shaped front gable is referred to as a “Jerkinhead” roof. Cyril M. Harris, author of “American Architecture: An Illustrated Encyclopedia,” defines such a configuration as “A combination of a gable roof and a hipped roof. The gable rises vertically about halfway up to the ridge, then the roof is tilted back at a steep incline.” Surprisingly, Sycamore possesses more examples of this feature than does DeKalb. Early renderings of this neighborhood and the courthouse square across the street depict a distinctive three-story tower rising from what is now the northeast - or back - corner of the James House. It made the residence stand out all the more strikingly. Many of the windows on the two street sides of the James House appear to be floor to ceiling in height. No doubt the structure originally sported a decorative porch, of a more elaborate type than what exists today. The brick deck with Doric columns dates back at least 30 years. The three second-floor windows on the east elevation are set in raised gables, topped by small Jerkinhead roofs. A small one-story bay on the east side is rectangular. The back of the house has probably been extensively altered in the area where the tower once was, as it is plainer in appearance than elsewhere. Were D.B. James to visit Sycamore today, he would likely be proud of the fact that the house's current occupant and his predecessor both put the venerable old residence to use as law offices. James died in 1877, and is buried in Sycamore's Elmwood Cemetery.
Steve Bigolin is a DeKalb County history expert.