DECATUR — Feast your eyes on the sumptuous scale model of the A.E. Staley Mfg. Co. pump house now gracing the Staley Museum in Decatur.
It’s beautifully made and rendered precisely in 1/48th scale, capturing the three visible levels of the original when it hummed to dances, bands and special events.
Built out of foam board, balsa wood, plastic and other stuff cunningly disguised to mimic stone and metal, it is now destined to outlive the crumbling original building moored in Lake Decatur just off of U.S. 36 for the last 100 years.
The historic full scale pump house confronts the end of its history because of a demolition death sentence. The building’s owners, Tate & Lyle, acquired the long-defunct structure 30 years ago when they took over the A.E. Staley food products business and, in March this year, applied for a permit to flatten it.
Tate & Lyle did not return calls seeking comment by deadline for this story, but the request for the demolition permit was confirmed by the Rock Island District of the US Army Corps of Engineers. They have to sign off that the demolition work won’t present a hazard to the lake’s water or ecosystem, but the Corps of Engineers also noted the building has “historical significance” and asked the State Historic Preservation Office for an opinion.
The SHPO told the Herald & Review its experts have now decided the pump house history is significant enough to make it eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The national register news, however, isn’t like that scene in Hollywood movies when the condemned prisoner, strapped to a gurney with a drip in his arm, suddenly gets a reprieve from a jangling telephone with a forgiving governor at the other end of the line.
Rachel Torbert, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, of which the SHPO is a division, said the national register eligibility ruling brings no reprieve from the wrecking ball. She said a request for more information had been received from Tate & Lyle and the SHPO is keen to discuss any way the building, or aspects of its memory, might be preserved. But state law was pretty clear on the issue of whether the pump house can ultimately be demolished.
“We have to follow state statute, and state statute allows for projects like this (the pump house demolition) to move forward,” she added.
Samantha Heilig, a Corps of Engineers spokeswoman, said once the Corps’ environmental concerns were satisfied, the way would be clear to erase the pump house. Asked if the permitting process could go fast enough for demolition this year, Heilig said: “Oh yeah, I would say certainly.”
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Bearing all this in mind, Laura Jahr, the director of the Staley Museum housed in the Arts & Crafts-style home of the industrial genius, was keen to have her model pump house on hand.
It sits in a space Jahr calls the “Decatur Stories Room,” full of exhibits that reflect the extraordinary life and achievements of Augustus Eugene Staley. Also included is a massive 5-foot-long stone fireplace lintel from the pump house emblazoned with the logo of the Staley Fellowship Club, an employee mutual aid society supported by Staley that was headquartered in the pump house. Soon it will be joined by one of the original massive wooden fireplace surrounds, all salvaged from the disintegrating pump house with the help of Tate & Lyle.
Jahr is quick to acknowledge the British-owned company has bent over backwards to help the museum with Staley artifacts and has done an extraordinary job of preserving the iconic Art Deco former Staley office building which is still in use.
The top of the building housed a clubhouse that hosted dances, weddings and parties. An ad in the July 4, 1923, Decatur Herald said that "moonlight dances and moving picture shows" are held there.
The last hurrah for the pump house puts everybody in an awkward position, however. In its working days it pumped water to the Staley plant from the lake A.E. Staley was instrumental in creating. In typical Staley style, the great man turned necessity into virtue by topping the structure with an events space on multiple floors that could also be accessed by boat. From its creation in 1919 until its fading disuse for events stretching into maybe the 1980s, (long after its water pumping days had dried up) the venue absorbed a lot of community affection.
“This has been a really difficult thing for both Tate & Lyle and the community,” said Jahr, reflecting on its fate. “The community wants to see it saved but for Tate & Lyle it’s a liability. It would take someone with very deep pockets to take on the responsibility for saving it and restoring it, giving it a purpose and moving it forward.”
But visitors can at least look at the splendid new model and the saved artifacts, and imagine how wonderful it all was. The model work was done on a commission from the Staley Museum by Decatur-based artist Lucy Brownlee and her 21-year-old daughter Whitney Meltz, a graduate student aiming for a career in stage and set design.
It took five months to complete and involved reproducing intricate details utilizing 3-D printing while Brownlee painstakingly painted more than 40 tiny figures who populate the building. She never saw the inside of the place herself in its glory days, but remembered her father’s tales about it when he was a boy in the late 1940s.
“He told me he and his friends would sit up by the railroad tracks and watch the festivities going on in there,” said Brownlee, 55. “It was a well known landmark and it’s just a great thing for Whitney and I to be a part of preserving its memory.”