The Sycamore Historic District: Location 9
By Steve Bigolin - Chronicle Columnist
The building at 201-211 W. State St. is the oldest three-story brick structure in downtown Sycamore. Dating from 1857 when it was the property of Daniel B. James, according to a Feb. 2, 1897, article in the Sycamore True Republican, the building had by the 1860s come to be known as George's Block. Many multi-story, multi-business structures were known as blocks. These buildings could contain retail space, professional offices and areas - such as dance halls - where events could be held. The third floor of James Block/George's Block, which is no longer in use, contained a lecture hall or auditorium when the building was new. The 1907 history “Past and Present of DeKalb County, Illinois” relates how this room was a center of intellectual activity, showcasing visiting speakers from around the United States. “The first year ... Horace Greeley (newspaper publisher who coined the phrase ‘Go West, young man, go West'), Bayard Taylor (American travel writer and poet) and Charles Sumner (Civil War-era statesman and antislavery leader) delivered lectures in the new building.” Many other noteworthy people of the time also were featured at the hall. The 1868 “History of DeKalb County, Illinois” by Henry L. Boies stated that “Mr. D.B. James erected the fine brick block now called George's block, which was dedicated with an old-settlers' celebration and festival.” To say the least, a structure of this sort was quite an undertaking during the 1850s. Not even DeKalb could lay claim to a three-story building in its business district before 1876, let alone a brick structure prior to 1865 or so. (1907's “Past and Present of DeKalb County, Illinois” contains what is said to be the first photograph of downtown DeKalb. The picture, circa 1860, shows one-, one-and-a-half- and two-story structures on both sides of what is now East Lincoln Highway.) D.B. James lived at nearby 107 W. Exchange St., an easy walk to his commercial block. As far as I am aware, the oldest picture of the building later appeared in the 1992 Chronicle Supplement for The National Bank & Trust Co.'s 125th anniversary. Although undated, it clearly was from the horse-and-buggy era, as a number of such conveyances are shown on the dirt street, which then was called West State Street. Based on the business names visible on the building, the photo may date from the 1860s or early 1870s. Case in point: The Ellwood brothers relocated their mercantile enterprise to the new Central Block in 1874. (Paulsen Appliance & Electronics and Cooper's Diamond Jewelers - 245 and 303 W. State St., respectively - occupy Central Block today.) D.B. James died in 1877, but had apparently sold James Block before the photograph was taken. “GEORGE'S BLOCK” can be seen in bold letters below the roof-level cornice in the picture. Balcony once graced its front A partial balcony was in place below the second-floor windows of the building's center and easternmost sections. This structure likely extended across the entire West State Street façade originally, but may have been more decorative than functional, as the windows did not reach down to the level of the deck. By the early 20th century, the balcony had disappeared completely and was replaced by retractable awnings for shading the storefronts from the sun. A simple yet distinctive brick cornice has always topped the building. Three retail establishments were once located on the ground floor of George's Block. The various display windows were not large glass panels, but tall and narrow, with three or four units per section. At one time on the Maple Street side of the first floor, there were large window units with four panes of glass in each sash. George's Block has certainly seen its share of changes over the years. Besides the loss of the balcony, all the ground-floor display windows have been altered from the way they were historically. Those on the Century 21 office - although modern - are somewhat in the spirit of the originals. Around the corner on the Maple Street side, there are bricked-up sections on the first floor where windows once were. The four-over-four double-hung windows once on the upper floors have been replaced by single-pane sashes. Only three third-floor windows are present, however, with 13 having been boarded up over time. James Block/George's Block remains an eye-catching landmark of old Sycamore today. --- Steve Bigolin is an expert on DeKalb County history.