Carriage return: James Millikin Homestead building gets new lease on life

2009-11-28T19:00:00Z Carriage return: James Millikin Homestead building gets new lease on lifeBy RALF PANSCH - H&R Special Projects Editor

DECATUR - There's no questioning the majesty, elegance and beauty of horses; whether a thoroughbred racer, trotter, cutting or an old farm plow horse. The equestrian breed of animal has its own charm.

And there's usually a pretty hefty investment for proper care, with stables being at the forefront.

Back in the day, when horses were used for everyday transportation as opposed to today's polymer plastic-clad, natural resource using polluting machines, there was the carriage house, rather than a garage, to stable the horses and, quite naturally, the carriages.

While carriage houses around the country have fallen victim to the preverbal wrecking ball, one such classic structure can still be found on the grounds on the James Millikin Homestead on West Main Street. And it is far from sitting empty.

Lyle Salmi, assistant art professor at Millikin University, has brought the brush of the artist, as well as a printing press, into the Homestead's carriage house.

"The carriage house was available; Ed (Walker, chair of the Millikin art department) said to claim it before another department did," Salmi says. "The idea was to make a connection with the community. We could have it open during the Friday art walks, and we're still looking forward to one day doing that."

During the summer, Salmi did a lot of the renovation work to get the building the way he wants it, which includes a commercial printing press, aptly named Carriage House Press, and, eventually, artist studios.

"Ray George, a faculty emeritus, passed away in 2005," Salmil said. "Ed Walker put a bug in my ear about doing a retrospective of his work.

"In exchange, his widow, Elaine, donated his German etching press for us cataloging his work as well as doing an exhibition of his catalog of work."

Salmi and George had a close friendship dating back to Salmi's days as a graduate student at Arizona State University in the mid-'80s. George, an art professor at Illinois State University, went to Arizona State as a visiting artist, and the two "just hit it off."

The friendship led to Salmi's landing a job at Illinois State before coming to Millikin 15 years ago.

Converting the carriage house was also a way for the art department to carry though on some of Millikin's long-range plans.

"The big thing for us was that we were following a mandate by the university president to extend the corridor between Millikin and the downtown," Walker said. "And the art department did our part by throwing our hat in the ring and converting the carriage house.

"We've collaborated with Sharon Alpi and the Tabor School of Business to cover the business side of things. Getting students over there will be the next step."

"I view this as a project with phases," Salmi said. "For the short term, we're where we need to be.

"The next step is to establish a connection between the arts community downtown and the arts community at Millikin University: a cultural corridor.

"I'd like to have an artist apply for a residency and come in for a week to work with students and faculty and pull a set of prints to sell through the Blue Connection. It's a symbiotic way of bringing professional artists into the community and classroom.

"It's a way to combine theory and practice."

And for Salmi, converting the Millikin Homestead carriage house has been more than just a professional accomplishment. It's personal, as well.

"I think does carry on the tradition of Ray George, and I am proud that we have his press," he said. "It carries on the tradition of artists as apprentices. With art, there are opportunities of apprenticeships; professionals working with students."|421-6983

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