The Sycamore Historic District: Location 10 By Steve Bigolin - Chronicle columnist
The south side of the 200 block of West State Street has been much photographed and written about since the 1870s. While the west half of the block is quite different today from how it appeared historically, the eastern portion looks much the same. The trio of buildings at 202-212 W. State St. are the oldest, comprising the historic Waterman Block. The various Waterman brothers rank among Sycamore's earliest residents and merchants. Waterman Block has James S. Waterman to thank, and during his life he was the town's wealthiest person. The 1870 U.S. Census placed his worth at more than $300,000, an astounding sum for that date. By the time he died in 1883, his worth rose to more than $500,000. James S. Waterman hailed from Herkimer County, N.Y.; he came west at age 18 in 1838, or so said 1885's “Portrait and Biographical Album of DeKalb County, Illinois.” Having studied civil engineering, he engaged in the surveying business. In 1839, he surveyed and platted the site of Sycamore in his capacity as deputy surveyor of DeKalb County. In 1844, James Waterman went into the mercantile business in Genoa, and the next year set up shop in Sycamore. Ten years later, he began dabbling in banking, to which he turned his full attentions in 1857. Waterman founded the Sycamore National Bank in 1871, with its charter granted on Nov. 11, 1871. It was headquartered in one of the Waterman Block store fronts, and James was president from 1871-1883. At the time of his death, plans were apparently in the works to relocate the bank to what is now 307 W. State St. - today occupied by Downtown Shoes. The bank opened for business at the new location on Jan. 1, 1884. From a purely physical perspective, Waterman Block is a good example of early Italianate commercial architecture. While there are four nearly identical buildings in a row, starting at the southwest corner of West State and Maple streets, only the first three comprise the historic Waterman Block. The fourth structure was a later addition. For many years, there was a wall mural of this side of the street inside the National Bank & Trust Co. building, itself being a newcomer to the 200 block. Research for the mural detailed information about the businesses once located along this section of the downtown in 1870, but unfortunately not about the Waterman Block. The present three-section brick building is said to have replaced an earlier frame structure that was destroyed by a fire. The stores were long and narrow, with their entrances at the level of the original board sidewalks. The corner building is the most architecturally interesting, thanks to the two street façades. Decorative brick “quoins” accent the corner wall, and also separate the first building from the second and the second from the third. The continuous brick cornice is composed of a simple panelled frieze motif. Second-floor windows rest on stone sills and are topped by segmental arches with keystones. The center building is slightly narrower than its neighbors, having just two windows on the second floor. The façade might have been designed that way, in order to help attract attention to the Waterman Block. At the time the Sycamore Historic District was designated - in May 1978 - the first two sections of the block, including the Maple Street wall, were painted a light blue. The quoins, cornices and second-floor window trim were white. In the 1980s, the brickwork was cleaned, restoring it to its natural color. The third building and its western neighbor had at one time been painted a dark tan, and were also subsequently stripped to expose their natural brick colors. Like its neighbor across the street - George's Block discussed last week - the Waterman Block remains as a prominent business building in the early 21st century in downtown Sycamore. --- Steve Bigolin is a DeKalb County history expert.