A long-standing property on Main Street returns to its original owner's vision to become Barrington's White House – a public community center for culture, social events, and celebrations.
Deliberately selecting 145 West Main Street as the site for their home in the newly incorporated village of Barrington, Julia and John Robertson chose to make a statement with their residence, one that still holds credence to this day.
The successful bank president and elegant hostess built the grandest house in the center of town, featuring a grand entry hall, kitchen, dining room, several parlors on the first floor, and a ballroom on the third floor. Not a country home in the slightest, it was the Robertsons' intent to build a structure that not only reflected their prominent status in the community but also embodied their community spirit.
The year was 1898 when area builder Fred Lines completed construction on the grand house, combining Queen Anne and Classical Revival architecture. The gardens were designed to enhance the columns, arches, leaded windows, and welcoming curved front porch that marked the structural beauty of the home.
According to sources, the Robertson's house was viewed as the social center of town. And it maintained that stature well into the late 1910s before becoming a hospital, private residence, rest home, business venue, and more. Today, the house still emits an aura of refined taste and grandeur, but its age is starting to show.
For years, Village of Barrington President, Karen Darch, has had the vision to transform the now empty house into a cultural and community center that can be utilized by residents of the entire Barrington area.
"Having seen the concept successfully demonstrated in other communities, we determined such a center would benefit area residents on many levels," Darch said. "This will be the first community center in Barrington's history."
The campaign to generate renovation funds is called Barrington's White House and is led by area resident Mary S. Smith. The campaign committee members are Darch, David Nelson, Freddie Smith Pederson, Thomas Hayward, and Beth Raseman.
"I can envision card parties in the north parlor, birthday gatherings in the west parlor, family and school reunions, as well as spectacular wedding receptions celebrated in the third-floor ballroom" Smith says.
"Generations of Barrington area residents have known this house in the center of downtown," Smith said. "It is a part of our collective memories. The time is now to preserve it for the future."
Focusing on including multiple generations of Barringtonians as well as anticipating the Village's 150th anniversary, the campaign is perfectly timed, says Raseman, former Village of Barrington trustee who is coordinating the volunteers and project management.
"With support of all area residents, at all levels, we hope to complete the renovation in 2015 for the sesquicentennial," Raseman said. "Here is the opportunity for the community to invest in our future by preserving the past."
Allow your thoughts to harken back in time to the turn of the last century. Barrington was beginning to grow and prosper as a small stop on the railroad that traveled from Chicago to its Northwest Suburbs. Farmers and businessmen became real estate developers. The economy was thriving.
Julia and John Robertson were in their 50s when they determined that an elegant home along Main Street would best serve their needs in the community for years to come. Their four children were nearing adulthood, so providing entertainment and cultural gatherings was a focus. The house's third-floor ballroom was to be the center for culture, society and celebration, and with Julia as the home's charming and popular hostess, the Robertson's plan of creating a social epicenter of the community worked flawlessly.
For two decades, the home was central to Barrington area society and culture. But in 1917 and 1918, respectively, Julia and John Robertson died, and the home's open design, sturdy construction and functional, yet elegant structure, proved useful for different purposes.
The era was post-World War I, and soon the 1918 influenza epidemic caused the once opulent house to find a more practical use as a hospital to care for many sick Barrington residents.
After her parents passed on, the Robertson's daughter, Lydia, and her husband, George Lytle, purchased the home. From 1919 until 1921, the Lytles owned the home. As the progeny of successful society parents, it is believed Lydia continued to utilize the house and its salons for gatherings and events.
The house changed hands from 1921 to 1926 making Nathalie and Henry Sass the owners. It was purchased by Robert Mickey in 1926 and was used on and off as a residence until it was sold in 1945.
Over the next few years the large white house was repurposed as a rest home for Barrington's elderly. Mabel June Hoffman owned and operated the haven for senior citizens who were frail and in need of nursing care. Area residents like Tim Dunn recall visiting the rest home as a child with his grandmother. "We would bring flowers and visit the folks to help out Mrs. Hoffman who was a friend of my grandma's," Dunn said.
Jim Condill, another area resident, says he and his brother would walk by the home with respect. "No one told us how to act, but even as youngsters we knew to walk by the house quietly, with reverence," he says.
Into the 1950s and '60s, the house remained a useful center of Barrington, serving seniors and their families. However, when the rest home closed, it became an empty building that lacked purpose. In the early 1970s, fire struck the house, causing enough damage that the building was in danger of being demolished.
Al Borah, a prominent business leader of the time, recognized the value of preserving historic buildings in Barrington and bought the property in 1973.
According to Tom Hayward, the attorney who facilitated Borah's purchase of the property, Borah thought that the building at 145 W. Main St. was a landmark that should not be torn down. His vision was that it could be used as commercial office space due to its central Main Street location.
"Al was a visionary who was also willing to take risks," says Hayward, who is part of the Barrington White House campaign. "When I questioned Al why he wanted to buy the damaged house, he said, 'It is an iconic building and part of the history of Barrington and deserves to be preserved.'"
Local resident Mary Williams, whose first experience with the house was as a Girl Scout visiting the rest home, eventually worked in the building as a realtor. In 1974, her father, Herb Wallbaum, and husband, John Williams, leased space from Borah for their business, Barrington Realty, and in 1985, the two bought the building. Williams started working for them in 1985, and she says the experience of having a business at 145 W. Main Street was a joy.
"People would stop in and just want to walk around and see the architecture, fireplace, pocket door, windows, and woodwork," she says. "The house enhanced our professional stature as a real estate business."
Barrington Realty owned the property until it was purchased by the Village of Barrington in 2007 as part of downtown revitalization efforts. The village always hoped to find a reuse for the building that would also preserve its history. This campaign accomplishes all of these goals.
Today, the activity and excitement about Barrington's White House is extraordinarily positive, Darch says. A campaign committee has been identified and many actions have already taken place to begin the process of restoration.
"Everyone can be a part of the renovation and revitalization," Darch says. "Barrington's White House will be owned by the community. We would love to have the renovation completed for the village's sesquicentennial in 2015."
The vision of the village and Barrington's White House volunteer committee is to renovate the property into an elegant and highly functional cultural and community center on the first and third floors. The second floor will be primarily professional office spaces available for lease to nonprofit organizations.
Anthony Rubano, project director of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency in Springfield, defines the restoration of the home as an example of "cultural patrimony."
He says the home is a cultural and architectural gift passed down from ancestors to future generations. Thus, the renovated cultural and community center will give Barrington a connection to the lifestyle of previous generations with an opportunity to preserve the historic relevance for families to come.
"More than just the structure of the building, this is a legacy of society, history, and priorities," Rubano says. "The Robertsons chose to build their private residence in the center of town as an announcement of their position as hosts for events, gatherings, and celebrations."
The first floor grand entrance will begin at the expansive curved front porch. Many area residents remember years of colorful flowers and flags displayed on the porch, especially during the Independence Day parade season, and it is a hope of the committee that such decorations are restored in coming years.
The elegant front entry hall will feature the home's original woodwork and wood floors, and the main stairway will be restored. Events will take place in the north, east, and west parlors as well as in the dining room. A new and expanded catering kitchen will support activities in the house.
The second floor will be divided into professional offices for nonprofit organizations to rent, which will support the sustainability of the property. There also will be a bride's room and coat check on the second level. A new addition off the rear of the structure will include an elevator, a second set of stairs, and new bathroom facilities on all three floors.
Remodeled completely, the third floor space will expand the ballroom. Originally occupying the front of the house on the third floor, the extended ballroom will span the entire length of the house. There also will be a staging area for caterers. The new ballroom will accommodate seated receptions and dinner parties of 150 people.
The exterior of the house will be restored to its original grandeur, and historically appropriate landscaping and gardens will wrap around the home. New walkways adorned with lighting and benches will link the various entrances.
Other local communities have seen success turning older buildings into community centers and wedding venues, Raseman says. The Women's Club of Evanston uses its clubhouse, built in 1913, as a space for weddings, corporate presentations, and other special events. The Highland Park Community House and Kenilworth Club are two additional renovated historic landmarks that utilize their space for special events similar to what could be hosted in Barrington's White House.
Area resident Harold Rider, a real estate professional, was instrumental in showing the Barrington White House committee that expanding the ballroom to accommodate groups as large as 150 would help the property become sustainable without the need for taxpayer assistance. Rider successfully purchased, restored, and ran the wedding venue Germania Place in Chicago for 30 years.
"Romantically and economically viable, this venue will draw folks seeking to host prestigious events," Rider says. "The large elevator will accommodate caterers, equipment, and guests. Caterers will love the kitchen and refer their clients once they see this stunning setting for weddings, reunions and parties."
The chance to restore such a historical property of Barrington is an opportunity that shouldn't be passed up, says Mary Smith, chairwoman of the Barrington White House committee and sister-in-law to Rider.
"Each of us owns the community in which we live," she says. "Forward thinkers will see the vision and realize that, collectively, we have the opportunity to own Barrington's White House. It will be a piece of all of our history and generate memories for future Barrington families."
All community members are invited by the Barrington White House committee volunteers to commit to the success of the campaign by investing in the transformation of the property, Raseman says.
Every level of giving will be welcomed. The restoration fund is a public/private partnership to create a self-sustaining cultural and community center for Barrington area residents and guests.
A gift to future generations, Barrington's White House will flourish with the support of multiple generations both in the construction phase and once the property is complete, Darch says.
"Barrington has a rich, vibrant history as well as a legacy of community collaboration and action. The opportunity to preserve the old house on Main Street as our community center is simply too important to let slip through our fingers," Smith said.
"The challenge to everyone in the community is to commit to the success of this endeavor. An infinite number of charming and elegant events can be hosted at this spectacular, grand house. Present and future generations will enjoy this gift we give to ourselves in celebration of Barrington's 150th anniversary."
In 2012, the village hired historic preservationist architects to develop floor plans with an emphasis on maximum use and sustainability for the proposed cultural and community center. Chicago-based Johnson Lasky Architects, recognized nationally for its work, was awarded the contract and created the final plans for the renovation and restoration.
JLA was chosen in part for its successful renovation of Lake Forest's Ragdale House, Raseman says. The artist-in-residence community was once the home of Chicago architect Howard Van Doren Shaw, who built his country house in 1897, just a year before Fred Lines completed the Robertsons' residence.
Meanwhile, historic landscape architect, Carol Yetken created site plans for the grounds to reflect the era of original construction and enhance the setting for the house.
Pepper Construction Company of Barrington has already contributed to the planning with project recommendations and preliminary cost estimates for the last year, volunteering a team of professionals to the village. Pepper has been awarded a contract to provide construction management services on the house.
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1860s: On Nov. 18, 1863, the paperwork to incorporate the village of Barrington is submitted. With the outbreak of the Civil War keeping state officials busy, Barrington doesn't officially become incorporated until Feb. 16, 1865. The first board meeting of the newly incorporated village takes place on March 20, 1865, at which resident Homer Wilmarth is elected mayor. John and Julia Robertson marry in 1866.
1880s: In 1894, John Robertson becomes president of the local bank. The Robertson's home at 145 W. Main St. is built in 1898 by builder Fred Lines, which combined Queen Anne and Classical Revival architecture.
1910s: Julia Robertson, 72, dies on April 19, 1917. Her husband dies the following year on Sept. 6 at the age of 73. After John's death, the house is used to care for sick residents of Barrington that are affected by the 1918 influenza epidemic. In 1919, after the house's brief stint as a hospital, daughter of John and Julia Robertson, Lydia, and her husband, George Lytle, purchase the house. Given the stature of Lydia's parents, it is believed that the couple continues to utilize the house and its ample space to host gatherings and events.
1920s: The house is purchased by Henry and Nathalie Sass in 1921. Robert Mickey purchases the house from the Sasses in 1926 using the house and its property as a residence.
1940s: Mabel June Hoffman owns and operates a rest home from 1945 until the 1960s.
1970s: After fire damages the old Robertson house, Al Borah, prominent business leader and visionary, fights against having the building torn down. He recognizes its value as an iconic landmark and purchases the house in 1973. He envisions the house being used for commercial office spaces. Borah leases the first floor office space to Herbert Walbaum for Barrington Realty. The second floor is rented to accountants and attorneys.
1980s: Herb Walbaum and his son-in-law John Williams buy the building from Borah in 1985.
2000s: The village of Barrington buys the property from Barrington Realty in 2007 as part of downtown revitalization with the vision of renovating and repurposing the house to preserve its history.
2010s: In 2013, the campaign to generate renovation funds was created and named Barrington's White House. After exploring several uses for the building, the decision is made to restore it as a cultural and community center. The anticipated completion year for the renovations is set for Barrington's sesquicentennial in 2015.
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The campaign to restore Barrington's White House is seeking to raise funds to turn the house into an elegant cultural and community center in time for the sesquicentennial in 2015. Get involved in one of several ways:
Susan Dobbe has served on the Governor's Commission on the Status of Women in Illinois, the executive board of the McHenry County Economic Development Corporation, Downtown Crystal Lake's Main Street Association, the Crystal Lake Chamber, and the State Treasurer's Women's Advisory Committee. Susan Dobbe has launched two children into adulthood and lives in Crystal Lake.
Susan McConnell is a Barrington resident who owns Susan McConnell Photography. She is a frequent contributor of both words and pictures to Quintessential Barrington.