(newst coverage at the top)
Aurora Beacon News
July 13, 2009
Holbrook Mill jigsaw puzzle coming together
By Andre Salles
If you've driven down Benton Street near Route 31 in downtown Aurora lately, you've seen that David Lewis' pet project is nearing completion.
Lewis is the curator of the Aurora Regional Fire Museum, and when he bought the nearly 170-year-old Holbrook Mill in 2006, his intention was to save it. Lewis plans to live in the mill and house a business of some kind on the first floor.
But he soon discovered that the only way to do that was to take it down, stone by stone, and build a new structure in its place. Now he's reattaching all of those little limestone bricks to his building, hoping to preserve its historic feel.
It's like a jigsaw puzzle -- the bricks need to fit together in evenly spaced rows and look like they did in the 1800s.
Steve Patzer, a stone mason from St. Charles, is the man tasked with solving that puzzle.
He's well qualified for the job -- Patzer has been in the masonry business for 38 years, and he's owned his own company since 1977. He's done similar projects before, including a building on River Street in Batavia. But the Holbrook Mill is its own particular brand of challenge.
The condition of the original stones, Patzer said, was pretty good. He lost some due to weather erosion, and some were discolored from fire damage through the years. He was originally worried that he might not have enough limestone to cover the new building, but he said that fear dissipated early.
The tough part is finding just the right size and shape stone when it's needed. Patzer and his crews are cutting the backs from the stones to attach them evenly to the walls, but they still need to slot next to each other evenly. The stones are on wooden pallets at the north end of the property, and Patzer has to dig through the pile to find what he needs each time.
Patzer's been on the job for two months now, and he expects to be done within six weeks. He gives Lewis acres of credit for taking on this project and for not giving up when he found the original building couldn't be saved.
The big question, of course, is whether it's the same Holbrook Mill. I asked Lewis that question a year ago when he began this project, and last week I put it to him again.
"It looks the same," he said. "That's what I wanted, to preserve the look and feel. And it's 100 times more stable, more secure, more permanent. It's able to last another 100 years.
"It was definitely the right decision," he said.
July 10, 2009
|Aurora shows signs of reviving downtown
Many properties have been updated, and city is encouraging people to live there
By Margaret Ramirez
For nearly 50 years the old Holbrook Mill stood sadly in downtown Aurora with a sagging roof, a shaky foundation and cracks running through its yellow limestone facade.
Like many of the other historical structures in the center of Illinois' second largest city, the stone building, believed to have been built before 1850, symbolized the rugged beauty of Aurora's industrial past and the shameful neglect of the present.
But after museum curator David Lewis bought the mill in June 2006, the two-story facade was dismantled stone-by-stone, the foundation was rebuilt and the original stones were reset on a new frame. The unusual restoration process for one of Aurora's oldest commercial buildings was time-consuming and extreme. Yet, by using some of the original limestone and obtaining approval from the Aurora Historic Preservation Commission, Lewis said the mill would retain its historic landmark status even as its interior is updated into a home and office space.
"I love old buildings, and I love challenges. And what we did here is created a new building with the old stone," said Lewis, who is curator of the Aurora Regional Fire Museum.
"This is not just about rehabbing a building, it's about changing attitudes of downtown Aurora," he said.
Lewis is part of a recent wave of developers that has rescued neglected properties in Aurora's downtown and transformed them into condos, funky loft apartments or commercial spaces. In a big push to revitalize the struggling downtown, city officials have provided about $300,000 annually in grants to business and property owners for restoration projects.
Much like its old, neglected buildings, downtown Aurora struggles to redefine itself, hoping to move from a desolate, no man's land to a bustling shopping and cultural hub along the winding Fox River. But the path and pace has been ragged due to decreased revenue, budget cuts and difficulty in luring new businesses.
Even so, the first signs of downtown Aurora's reawakening are finally visible. Last month, city officials held a Living Downtown tour of 11 rehabbed properties to raise awareness of Aurora's history, show off recent restorations and attract new residents.
Stops on the tour included the Holbrook Mill; the Stolp Woolen Mill Dye House, which was transformed into the family home of developer Dan Hites; and the Leland Tower, a legendary hotel and blues recording studio that is now the Fox Island Apartments.
Several more ambitious projects are in the pipeline, including plans to develop the east and west banks of the Fox into a shopping and restaurant riverwalk; construction of a 30-acre RiverEdge Park, which is expected to cost more than $12 million; publication of a new magazine called Downtown Auroran, and a Facebook page that lists news, photos and coming events.
"If you looked at downtown Aurora in the 1980s, it looked like the bombing of Dresden," said Karen Christensen, Aurora downtown development director. "So we decided that we needed to look at our buildings. We needed to recognize history and preserve our architecture. People don't think of downtown Aurora as a place to live. We want to change that."
For several decades after the Great Depression, downtown was known as one of the most vibrant areas in the state, said John Jaros, executive director of the Aurora Historical Society. Midwest farmers flocked to Aurora to patronize the small shops or three big department stores. There were two swank hotels, the Leland and Aurora Hotels, and also theaters and supper clubs that drew crowds on the weekends.
"Back then, everything you could possibly want was in downtown Aurora," said Jaros. "There were many locally owned men's hat shops, women's clothing stores. We had Sears, Carson's and Montgomery Ward."
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, with the arrival of malls and suburban sprawl, retail shopping began to migrate away from downtown, and the area started to decline. At the same time, Aurora's economy suffered due to the exodus of factories and local industries. After Sears moved out in 1958 and the Fox Valley Mall opened in 1975, downtown hit rock bottom.
"What happened in Aurora is really a trend that happened in downtown areas all across the U.S. The industrial era ended, factories moved and downtowns were dying," Jaros said.
When the Hollywood Casino opened in 1993, many hoped it would spur downtown activity. Instead, the casino prompted worry and fear that Aurora would become known as "the city with the casino." Shortly after, city officials commissioned several reports to map a strategy for revitalizing downtown. Design and consultant firms that studied Aurora echoed similar recommendations: development of the Fox riverfront, attracting better retail businesses and emphasizing ethnic diversity.
Christensen said one obstacle was the aging population of downtown building owners who held onto their structures even when they could no longer maintain them. In 2001, city officials began providing financial incentives to rehab old buildings.
"We find that buildings get revitalized when they get a new owner who has the cash and vision to see potential," Christensen said.
Hites, an intrepid developer, bought and rehabbed three downtown properties, including the Stolp Dye House for his home. The nearby Aurora Woolen Mill Factory is being leased to a recording studio, and the old W.S. Frazier & Co. building at 60 S. River St. was converted into loft apartments.
"When I was looking for buildings, I kept coming back to Aurora again and again. I like the fact that there is an island right in the middle of downtown. Just looking at it, you can feel what it can be," Hites said.
That may be a ways off. Despite the arrival of new businesses like the River's Edge Cafe, there is little pedestrian foot traffic.
The vibe is closer to sleepy than busy.
"We still need more destinations, more restaurants. We need more residents living here who have disposable income," Christensen said.
Jaros also remains hopeful.
"It's going to be a different kind of vibrant. It's going to be more focused on being a downtown living and cultural area," he said. "We were in the dark for a long time. Now, we can finally see some light."
Aurora Beacon News
February 14, 2007
Owner plans to dismantle, reassemble historic mill
By Kristen Zambo
AURORA - Yellowed with age, heavily cracked and rapidly deteriorating,
an Aurora landmark soon may come down - only to be resurrected.
David Lewis, curator of the Aurora Regional Fire Museum, became
interested in the Holbrook Mill more than a decade ago after it was
purchased by Old Second National Bank and slated for demolition. He
didn't want it razed, but the two-story limestone building has fallen
into massive disrepair.
"It's a great building," Lewis said. "It has a lot of potential. It's
not a simple solution here."
Instead he wants to dismantle the building at Benton Street and Middle
Avenue, create a basement on the site, and construct the restored
limestone facade over a wooden frame. By using the same materials, and
period-specific pieces like 100-year-old timber, Lewis said the site
will retain its historic landmark status.
The roof collapsed in March 2006, the month before Lewis bought it.
Lewis paid $59,000 for the abandoned building, according to Aurora
Township Assessor records. It was built in the early 1840s, and has
served as a livery stable, carriage factories and the Holbrook Mill.
At some point there was a fire.
"This is the most dramatic, the most drastic (option)," Lewis said.
"Controlled dismantling of the building ... and rebuilding it, stone by
Lewis declined to comment on how much the endeavor will cost him.
"I have the means to do the project," he said.
Members of the FoxWalk Overlay District Design Review Committee this
week approved the issuance of a certificate of appropriateness to
dismantle the building. Lewis must obtain approval from the Aurora
Historic Preservation Commission and the FoxWalk committee of final
plans for the site before work may begin. He could go before both boards
"I'm extremely optimistic that construction will start by fall," Lewis
said. "There are several people who've said, 'what are you thinking?' I
love that building. Trying to preserve the historic flavor of downtown
is important to me."
"It would be nice to have a foundation by the time snow flies (next
winter)," Batavia-based architect Lane Allen said.
Allen said they plan to install an elevator in the 3,264-square-foot
On the side of the building passers-by may notice four chimneys - all
bricked over. The limestone between these chimneys has turned pink, with
minerals leaching out of the soft limestone because of the chimneys'
intense heat. Allen and Lewis said they may try to incorporate some of
the pink limestone in the refurbished structure.
"I'm determined to make this building last another 100 years," Lewis said.
Aurora Beacon News
December 22, 2006
Curator now owns historic building
By Andre Salles
AURORA - It may not seem like it to many, but David Lewis feels like
he's won a prize.
Lewis, the curator of the Aurora Regional Fire Museum, is now the proud
owner of one of the most neglected historic buildings in the city - the
Holbrook Mill on Benton Street. According to the Aurora Township
Assessor's Web site, Lewis paid $59,000 for the mill at Benton and
Middle Avenue in June, and he envisions a combination
residential/commercial use for it.
"It's a phenomenal building," he said. "It's the oldest building in the
city, and it's believed to be one of the oldest in the county."
Acquiring the mill was only one of the highlights of Lewis' 2006, a
year that found him taking center stage more than once. As one of the
key planners of the Aurora Fire Department's 150th Anniversary
celebration, Lewis helped organize a four-day downtown party this
summer, and also took the lead on a project to catalog every member of
the Fire Department, past and present, in chronological order.
Now each firefighter has a personal number, and a commemorative badge to
match, one that resembles the original AFD badges worn in the 1850s.
It's a project he's particularly proud of, and he is grateful for the
support of the community. But it's not all he accomplished in 2006 - he
joined with the city to help create a downtown Aurora walking tour, one
that points out historic buildings and structures. That tour is booked
through May of next year, he said. Additionally, his work with the Fire
Museum continued, and he plans to bring in computerized terminals next
year to make the museum more interactive.
To top all that off, earlier this year, Lewis was honored as the AFD's
first honorary firefighter, in recognition for his years of service.
"It's been a very good year," he said. "The outpouring of support has
The looming question for 2007, however, is what Lewis will do with the
Holbrook Mill now that he owns it. Lewis has retained the services
of Lane Allen Architects of Batavia and has been consulting with the
city and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. But he said the age
and condition of the building present challenges.
"It's not a quick fix," he said. "There are lots of different parts, and
they are all interrelated. That has delayed the progress, because we
need to find a cohesive solution."
The mill has been vacant for decades. It was built in 1843 as a saw
mill, and later was used as a grist mill and a livery stable. The
building had been used for storage for nearly 50 years when Old Second
National Bank purchased it in 1989.
And then began, in Lewis' words, an "ongoing historic preservation
battle." Old Second wanted to demolish the building and put a parking
lot on the site, but in 1990 the city established the Holbrook Mill
as a local landmark, one that requires approval from the Historic
Preservation Commission for any external work. The commission blocked
the bank from tearing down the structure.
For 14 years, Old Second held onto the property, rejecting the notion of
using public funds to restore the building. The bank did no work on the
building in that time and then sold it to Horwitz, R.L. Schanlaber, S.S.
Family Limited Partnership in 2003 for $35,000.
A primary member of that trust is Susan Schanlaber Barnes, CEO of the
Landmark Group of Companies and a member of the president's Advisory
Council on Historic Preservation.
And according to both Barnes and Mark Anderson, assistant director of
the city's Department of Neighborhood Standards, the new owners were in
the process of fixing the mill's roof when it collapsed in March of
Since then, the mill has stood open, and the recent storms have piled
snow inside the building. But Lewis said that putting up a temporary
roof would not solve the problem either, because the walls are unstable.
Each element of the building, he said, affects another, and the mill
needs to be repaired all at once.
"I'm dedicated to this project and to doing the right thing," Lewis
said. "I'm not in this as an investment."
Lewis said he is exploring temporary options to secure the building for
winter, but would not speculate on the total cost of renovation, or how
much he is willing to put into the project.
"It's bigger than a breadbox and smaller than a house," is all he would say.
But city officials seem impressed with Lewis, and have been working with
him to consider options for the old mill. Downtown Development
Director Karen Christensen has been in talks with Lewis and said she is
confident in his dedication to the project.
"Over the years, this property just hasn't had an owner who has had the
right emotional and financial connection, but now we think it does," she
And although Lewis inherited the building with numerous code violations,
including the boarded-up windows on the first floor, Anderson said the
city is willing to work with him to see the Holbrook Mill redeveloped.
"Code violations are not to be used as a weapon to thwart someone from
buying property and redeveloping it," Anderson said. "Sometimes you have
to look at the big picture."
As someone who has watched the ongoing saga of the mill for years,
Lewis said he doesn't understand people who suggest simply knocking it
down. Lewis has a passion for preservation, and says he will do what it
takes to get the building into better shape.
"I am happy to step in and give the building its best due," he said. "It
needs to be saved."
David Lewis, curator of the Aurora Regional Fire Museum, now owns the
historic Holbrook Mill (below) at Benton Street and Middle Avenue in
downtown Aurora. He plans to renovate the structure built in 1843.
Aurora Beacon News
March 29, 2006
Work begins on Holbrook Mill
By Andre Salles
AURORA - Work began Tuesday on the removal of the collapsed roof from
the Holbrook Mill at 121 W. Benton St.
Crews on cherry pickers worked throughout the day, unfastening the
sunken roof structure and pulling out loose chunks of limestone. By
day's end, debris had been cleared from Middle Avenue, still blocked off
to cross traffic, and the old, broken roof, which gave way early Sunday
morning, was almost completely gone.
And that, says Susan Schanlaber Barnes, is just step one. When the
repairs are done, the Holbrook will have a new flat roof, one that
matches more closely the one it first sported when it was built in 1843.
"We're not going to replace the peaked roof," she said. "We're going to
be taking the building back to its original state."
Barnes is a partner in Horwitz, R.L. & Schanlaber, S.S. Family Limited
Partnership, a trust which purchased the Holbrook Mill from Old
Second National Bank in 2003. Barnes has a lengthy history with
preservation, having been recently named by President Bush as vice chair
of his Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and is the CEO of the
Landmark Group of Companies, based in Aurora.
Old Second owned the Holbrook from 1989 to 2003, and their plan
originally was to demolish the building to make way for a parking lot.
However, the City Council granted the mill landmark status in 1990,
which means that any external changes must get a certificate of approval
from the city's Historic Preservation Commission.
Forbidden to raze the building, the bank let it sit until Barnes and her
trust bought it. Barnes said that her plan originally was to mothball
the building for a few years to see how the West Side riverbank area
developed before deciding on a new use.
"Within the last few months, some major developments have been
announced," she said, referring to simultaneous projects by developers
Kent Shodeen and Joe Vantreese on opposite sides of the Fox River. "That
has a direct impact on the potential use for the building."
She said that contrary to popular belief, many repairs had been
undertaken on the Holbrook Mill since 2003, including fixing broken
windows and some interior structure work.
"It's not visible from the outside, but there is work going on," she said.
She also confirmed that certificates of appropriateness had been issued
for work on the outside of the building in late fall of 2005. She said
repairs to the roof, which was added to the mill roughly 100 years
ago, had been scheduled for the spring, as soon as the weather permitted.
She said the work was planned even before she received property code
violations for the roof from the city.
"As a property owner, you recognize that certain things need to be
done," she said. "No one has ever called to inquire what has or hasn't
been done to the building."
According to Mark Anderson, assistant director of the city's Department
of Neighborhood Standards, the roof's collapse caused only slight
structural damage to the south wall. He said the first order of business
would be removing the old roof and then placing supports on the south
wall to assist with structural stability.
"Our main concern is that the owner moves quickly to address the
dangerous conditions at the site," he said, "and that is what we are
Anderson has met with Barnes and her contractor, Yorkville-based C.W.
White and Son, and so far is happy with the response to the collapse. He
said the project is an ongoing one, but that the structural concerns
should be completely addressed "within a couple of weeks."
"Now that she has professionals out at the property, we expect good,
steady progress toward completion," he said.
Barnes must go before the Historic Preservation Commission again to
receive approval to replace the roof, but hopes it will see the
potential in returning the Holbrook Mill to its original design.
"It's an important building, and we're hopeful that it will be
redeveloped," she said.
Workers Tuesday remove the collapsed roof from the old Holbrook Mill
building in downtown Aurora, where much of the roofing material caved in
Saturday, as efforts to stabilize and repair the historic structure
began in earnest.
Aurora Beacon News
March 28, 2006
|"Demolition by neglect"
Historic mill's roof collapse comes after decades of disrepair
By: Andre Salles
AURORA - Since the roof of the historic Holbrook Mill collapsed
early Sunday morning, many have described the situation as unfortunate,
disappointing and a shame.
But one thing no one is calling it is unexpected. In fact, many are
pointing to years of neglect and disrepair as the cause.
The mill, at 121 W. Benton St. in downtown Aurora, has been vacant for
decades. It was built as a saw mill in 1843, and later was used as a
grist mill and a livery stable. The building had been used for storage
space for nearly 50 years when Old Second National Bank purchased it in
The bank's original intention, according to bank President and CEO Bill
Skoglund, was to demolish the mill and put in a parking lot on the
site. However, in 1990, the city established Holbrook Mill as a
local landmark, requiring a certificate of appropriateness for any
external work, and forbade the bank from demolishing it.
For 14 years, Old Second held on to the property, rejecting the notion
of using public funds to restore the building. Skoglund said that the
bank never did any work on the building, because of the high costs of
renovation, estimated in 1990 at $250,000.
"That building never even had heat," he said. "It would be a major
renovation project, and not something we were looking to do."
Building changes hands
Skoglund said the bank built its parking lot on the north end of the
mill, without disturbing the building. In 2003, Old Second sold it to
Horwitz, R.L. & Schanlaber, S.S. Family Limited Partnership, for
$35,000. The bank's main contact with the trust, Skoglund said, was
Susan Schanlaber Barnes, a general partner and a prominent authority on
Barnes is CEO of the Landmark Group of Companies, based in Aurora, and
is a member of the president's Advisory Council on Historic
Preservation. Last month, she was selected as vice chairman of that
committee by President Bush.
"Susan said she would do the renovation, and that was fine with us,"
Al Signorelli, president of the Aurora Heritage League, served on the
city's Historic Preservation Commission at the time. He referred to the
renovation of the Holbrook Mill as a personal crusade and called the
bank's inaction "demolition by neglect."
Signorelli said he was surprised, however, to see no immediate
renovation work being done once the building changed hands.
"When Susan bought the building, at first, we were thrilled," he said.
"But then nothing appeared to have been done. You would think she would
have done some immediate things to keep this from happening."
Schanlaber Barnes declined to comment Monday, saying that she needed to
continue assessing the damage and discussing the issue with the other
members of her trust.
Recently received permits
According to Mark Anderson, assistant director of the city's Department
of Neighborhood Standards, the collapse was caused by a structural
failure of the roof. He said that he met Monday morning with Schanlaber
Barnes and her contractor, Yorkville-based C.W. White and Son, and that
further meetings have been scheduled with structural engineers to
determine the extent of the damage.
"Our main concern is that this be addressed promptly," Anderson said,
"and that is being done."
Anderson said that the building's owners were in the process of fixing
the roof at the time of the collapse. Two certificates of
appropriateness were issued in September 2005, one from the Historic
Preservation Commission and one from the FoxWalk Overlay District Design
Review Committee, of which Schanlaber Barnes is vice chairman.
Anderson said that the certificate was applied for in response to
property maintenance violations issued during the summer of 2005, which
targeted the sagging roof. He said that since then, the owners of the
building have been responsive and cooperative.
"They have been very serious about responding to the conditions over
there," he said.
The damage was confined to the roof, Anderson said, which did not even
collapse to the level of the second floor. The limestone walls, though
cracked from years of disrepair, still are standing. However,
precautions have been taken - the city has blocked off Middle Avenue
next to the mill and closed a section of Old Second's parking lot.
For Alderman Mike Saville, 6th Ward, the situation is unfortunate.
Saville is a major proponent of historic preservation in Aurora and
wishes that the mill had been renovated in time.
"I'm disappointed that the owner didn't get to do the repairs soon
enough," he said. "I'm hoping she can follow through and fix it up. I'm
hoping she will do more than just shore it up. It's a valuable piece of
Signorelli has many suggestions for the property, including using it to
house local theater groups and turning it into an architectural museum.
However, he's concerned that none of that will be done now, and the
building will sink further into disrepair.
"Why wasn't at least something done?" he asked. "At least get someone in
there to see how the sagging roof could have been shored up. I don't
think that would have been too much."
The City of Aurora has cordoned off the area around old Holbrook
Mill building after its roof partially collapsed early Sunday.
Aurora Beacon News
March 27, 2006
|Roof falls at Historic 1843 Mill
By Matthew DeFour
AURORA - The roof of one of Aurora's historic buildings, and possibly
the oldest industrial structure in Kane County, collapsed Sunday
morning, though no one was injured and the walls remain standing.
The roof of the two-story limestone building at 121 W. Benton St., which
was built in 1843 and is known as the Holbrook Mill, caved in
sometime during the morning, but a cause has not been determined.
The vacant building, specifically the roof, had been cited for property
maintenance violations in recent months, according to Karen Christensen,
director of the Downtown Development Division.
The building's owners were in the process of fixing the roof and had
obtained certification from the Aurora Historic Preservation Commission
to proceed with the repairs. The certification is required because the
building is designated as a local landmark.
Though a contractor already was hired for the project, the work had not
started "because of the weather," according to Susan Schanlaber Barnes,
one of the general partners in the trust that owns the property.
Barnes declined to comment further before consulting with the
contractor, who was expected to begin working on the site today.
The trust, Horwitz, R.L. & Schanlaber, S.S. Family Limited Partnership,
purchased the building for $35,000 in 2003 from Old Second National
Bank, which had owned the building for years and once sought to demolish
it to use the land as part of its adjacent parking lot.
In 1990, the City Council intervened at the behest of area
preservationists and designated the mill a local landmark. A number of
proposals initially were submitted suggesting what to do with the
building and how to fund its restoration, which at the time would have
cost an estimated $250,000.
However, Old Second rejected the idea of using public funding or turning
the property over to a private developer. After a year, nothing
materialized and the mill has been largely untouched.
Prompt repairs needed
Barnes, who President Bush recently named as vice chairman of his
Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, surveyed the damage Sunday
with officials from the city's Department of Neighborhood Standards.
City crews blocked off Middle Avenue and placed yellow caution tape
around the structure. Some of the rotted timber had fallen onto Middle
Avenue, and the upper corner of one of the walls had cracked as a result
of the sunken roof.
Because the building is surrounded by two streets and the Old Second
parking lot, the residual damage was minimized, according to Mark
Anderson, assistant director of the Department of Neighborhood Standards.
And because the structure was built out of stacked limestone, the roof
did not support the rest of the building (by keeping the walls apart), a
feature more commonly associated with modern brick buildings.
"Even though the roof did collapse, it does not appear the roof caved in
to the ground," Anderson said, though he added: "It's very important
that it's repaired very quickly."