DECATUR — With its distinctive scarlet roof, Bedford stone walls and octagonal shape, the Transfer House in downtown Decatur has stood the test of time as a symbol for the city.
Thousands of people who fill Central Park next weekend during the Decatur Celebration will surround the iconic structure — maybe sit a spell on one of the cool stone benches, eat a funnel cake in its shade, snap a photo in front of the eye-catching architecture.
If they peer inside, though, they’ll see peeling paint, holes in the ceiling, bare wires and exposed bricks and wood. For all the grandeur outside, the interior is a testament to decades of tight municipal budgets and neglect.
But city officials are beginning to explore solutions.
Interim City Manager Billy Tyus said last week that city staff have reached out to a local architectural firm for an estimate of what interior work is needed and what that would cost.
“It’s a historical building, and ... the idea is to see what it might take to do some of the interior work that might be necessary,” Tyus said.
He stressed that the city is only taking the first steps. It would be up to the Decatur City Council to decide whether to move forward, approve funding and determine the final use for the building.
The Transfer House was named the city’s official symbol in 2001 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places the following year. It has been empty since its last occupant, the now-defunct Downtown Decatur Council, moved out in 2005, citing deteriorated conditions and a mouse infestation.
Since then, the city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars refurbishing and preserving the structure, but little has been done to restore the interior to a usable state. The council did take an important step in 2015 when it spent $63,000 on repairs to the internal support system, effectively preventing the roof from collapsing.
Future work would need to address issues with windows, patching, electrical and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.
It's the latest phase of a building that dates to a time when Grover Cleveland was in the White House and streetcars filled downtown Decatur streets.
A long, storied history
When the Transfer House opened in February 1896, the building was used as the main hub for the city’s transit system. It was designed by William W. Boyington, the architect behind Chicago’s Water Tower and the state Capitol building in Springfield.
Hundreds of people gathered for the opening celebration, according to a Feb. 22, 1896, Decatur Herald article.
“They had nothing but words of praise for what is certain to be the greatest public convenience in the city,” the newspaper reported. “Their pride was likewise excited over the fact that there is no other city in the country which boasts of so fine a building of this class.”
It had an upper-level bandstand that provided for small concerts and public speeches, and served as a gathering place for major events, such as Decatur’s celebration of the end of World War II. Presidents William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt all delivered speeches there.
As people relied less on electric streetcars and more on automobiles, the Transfer House grew less necessary by the mid-1950s. Its location in Lincoln Square conflicted with a plan by the Illinois Department of Transportation to make North and South Main Street a one-way thoroughfare through downtown.
The 150-ton building was moved to Central Park in 1962. Crews lifted the building onto wheels and hauled it on East Main and North Franklin streets to the east side of the park.
But as the use of mass transportation continued to decline, city bus lines stopped using it a few years later, according to documents submitted to the National Register of Historic Places.
That was the first time the building sat empty, said Paul Osborne, editor of the Decatur Tribune, former mayor of Decatur and longtime observer of local politics. After several years, it became home in 1970 to the Downtown Decatur Council, a nonprofit group that promoted downtown interests.
The agreement between the council and the city remained for 35 years, but Osborne said neglect of the building eventually made it “unfit for habitation” and the council moved to the Barnes Citizens Building in 2005. Members told the Herald & Review at the time the move would be temporary, but Osborne said that hope died when the group later became part of the Greater Decatur Chamber of Commerce.
Osborne, who served as Decatur mayor from 2003 to 2008, said he and others sought to make the building a more integral part of the community in addition to restoring it.
A plan to move the Transfer House back to Lincoln Square was nixed by IDOT in 2005 for traffic and safety reasons, but a report commissioned by the city council at the time also gave a blueprint on how the city could refurbish the building for community use.
Among the recommendations from the report included restoring or re-creating murals of Abraham Lincoln on the ceiling of the Transfer House. The study documented the existence of the long-forgotten murals, which are believed to have been funded by a Depression-era federal grant.
In 2007, the city made a major investment in improvements, spending roughly $500,000 to restore the exterior of the structure. That included work on the roof, ornamental spire, windows, doors, stone masonry, stone benches and exterior lighting.
Once the exterior work was finished, city officials began again to contemplate uses for the inside and sought ideas from residents.
Reflecting on that period, Osborne said there was real momentum toward restoring the Transfer House and making sure residents could be proud of their city’s logo.
“We thought it was one of the treasures of Decatur,” Osborne said. “It was a platform I ran on, to recognize how valuable these historic structures are, but to also market them to bring visitors to Decatur and let them generate tax money.”
But then came the Great Recession and a declining population for Decatur, which reeled from the effect of a shrinking tax base. City officials looked anywhere they could to save an extra dollar, and that meant delaying efforts to restore the Transfer House for public use.
The $14 million downtown streetscape project completed in 2015 included a $1.7 million renovation of Central Park, and city leaders had initially hoped the Transfer House would be included in some of that work.
Ultimately, though, they said there was not enough money left over to refurbish the landmark.
“There's just been a lot of irons in the fire the last couple of years. There really has been,” former Public Works director Rick Marley told the Herald & Review in 2015.
“The economic situation has created a lot of problems, and it's just been a tremendous number of things have really taken front and center.”
The city symbol, again
The Transfer House was the reason that Pat McDaniel got into politics.
McDaniel, who has served on the city council since 2011, remembers how upset he was when city leaders removed the Transfer House as Decatur’s logo in 2000. It had been replaced with a symbol of sun and fields meant to emphasize the region’s agricultural ties.
McDaniel launched a campaign against the change. He attended council meetings and wrote to the Herald & Review. Other residents followed suit and the city changed course, making the Transfer House its official seal in 2001.
But today, McDaniel said he and the other council members must be pragmatic about what can be done as the city continues to have to do more with less within its budget.
“There’s not a lot of money around,” McDaniel said, adding it made no sense to sink tens of thousands of dollars into a building that may just end up being a “money-loser” for the city.
A city survey issued in 2008 sought a consensus on what residents hoped to see done with the inside of the center, with popular choices using it as a center for tourism or a place to offer local historical information.
Other options included renting the interior to a smaller business, such as a coffee shop.
In June 2010, the city council approved a $20,000 contract with Peoria-based design firm IONA Group to explore ways to turn the landmark into a storytelling device for the community’s history.
Nothing from the survey or the design firm have come to fruition, and McDaniel said he does not see any clear standouts among the options for possible tenants.
The space is probably too small for most private businesses, McDaniel said, and officials have to be honest that Decatur is not exactly a tourist destination.
“I don’t think this city really needs another museum,” McDaniel said.
During a recent photo shoot for her daughter’s high school senior pictures, Julie Maley said she knows all about the history of the Transfer House and sought to use its architecture as a striking backdrop for photos.
Maley, 46, said she would love for residents to be able to go into the building to learn more about its history.
"It would be interesting for it to be a place to tour," she said. "Maybe a museum, to see the history of what used to be there."
The photographer, Kathy Locke from Child’s Play Photography in Decatur, agreed with Maley’s sentiment, hoping more could be done with the landmark.
"It signifies the heyday of Decatur," she said. "But I wish they would put something inside. A coffee shop would be fun."
City leaders agree that, in a perfect world, the city symbol would be open to the public and play a role in the continued restoration of downtown Decatur.
“I think that it could be right in line with a lot of work we’ve done in downtown, especially Central Park,” Tyus said. “We’ve done a lot of work to beautify the downtown area; it’s a public symbol.
“If there is a way to do the work that’s necessary in the Transfer House, and it could be put to public use, I think the public would be appreciative of that.”
But, like all municipal projects, the future depends on the availability of funding and the willingness of council members to allocate it.
Tyus said an estimate from an architectural firm would provide a starting point for the decision-making process.
McDaniel said he will wait to see the cost estimates for fixing up the interior of the building, but that he was reluctant to spend too much on it.
As he sees it, it’s the exterior of the building that’s the symbol of the city — not the inside.
“Even if it just sits here … It’s the architecture of the building,” he said. “People can look at the building, and the sign will tell them the history of it.”
Osborne sees it differently. Letting a historical landmark decay on the inside does the whole structure a disservice, he said.
“It’s the symbol of our city ... you do not just let that sit empty,” Osborne said. “Hopefully that will change when money is loosened up or they can get some private funds.
“That could really be a neat place to go.”
Donnette Beckett of the Herald & Review contributed to this story.
Contact Ryan Voyles at (217) 421-7985. Follow him on Twitter: @RVVoyles
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