Edwards Place Restoration: Oldest Home In Springfield Gets A Major Face-Lift

Apr 16, 2015

A refurbished horsehair couch, the oldest piece of furniture in the home
Credit Rachel Otwell/WUIS

If you've made your way to the Springfield Art Association over in the Enos Park neighborhood, you certainly noticed the large brick pale-pink home with green shutters. It's well over 150 years old and it's known as Edwards Place. It has just undergone a major restoration. I went for a visit as the process was wrapping up:

“You are looking at a total transformation of the first floor of Edwards place… we've stripped the whole place bare - we have refinished wood work in here - the woodwork is original walnut which we think dates to the original construction of the house back in 1833 so it was probably harvested, possibly right off the property, probably in Springfield….” That’s Erika Holst, the Curator of Collections for the Springfield Art Association. Helping return this home to its former glory has been a passion of hers since the project got its start with fundraising in 2010. Nearly half a million dollars later, the first floor of this two story home is back to the way it looked in the mid 1800s.

"The wait is finally over! After being closed for nearly a year, the first floor of Edwards Place has been restored to its 1850s appearance. The public is invited to come to a free open house and behold the transformation ... Saturday, April 18, 1 to 5 pm." More info at edwardsplace.org.

  "It is actually the oldest surviving house in Springfield, the core was built in 1833. It doesn't look like an 1833 house because of the big remodel in 1857,” says Holst. That was when the Edwards added on rooms to the back of the home, and it was done up in the Victorian splendor you can see today. The carpet is a colorful mix of patterns and bold colors in different hues of red and blue. “This is milled in England on looms that have been in use since the 19th century from a 19th century pattern, so our carpet guy says it's not so much of a re-production as a ‘still-in-production,’” says Holst. You can tell just by walking on it that the quality of the carpet is nothing like what we use today.

The furniture is equally ornate, including a humongous mirror hanging on the wall with a gold frame surrounding it. “It is not original, our best guess now is that it came from Mary Todd Lincoln's sister Anne's house. She had built this spectacular house in 1864 and that mirror started its life there. The Art Association got it in 1930 … God knows how it got over here because it's supposed to weigh like 600 pounds and it's never going anywhere - we looked into having someone take it down and no one would touch it,” says Holst.

Much of the appeal of Edwards Place is its connections to the Lincolns. It is said that Abe himself visited here occasionally, and the infamous Lincoln courting couch also resides here. It was restored after a Kickstarter campaign that raised over $5,000 dollars. It is said that Mary Todd and Abe canoodled on the black, horsehair piece of furniture. But this home has other historical significance: “In the 1850s, you would have known who the Edwards were before you knew who Abraham Lincoln was. His father had been the governor of Illinois. Benjamin's Edward's brother ... was married to Lincoln's sister, is how we connect ourselves to Lincoln today - in the 19th century you would have known him as the son of Governor Ninian Edwards.”

Workers put up wallpaper
Credit Rachel Otwell/WUIS

Ninian Edwards was governor of Illinois when it was only a territory - from 1809 to to 1818 - he then served as one of the first US senators from the state, and served as governor again from 1826 to 1830. He was born to a prominent family in Maryland, and his professional career was partly marred by his desire to rid the Illinois area of Native Americans. But his legacy is still an essential one when it comes to the founding of our state.

Benjamin - his son, was a well-known and highly regarded lawyer in town, who owned the home with his wife Helen. After she passed away in 1909 the home became a place where a local woman's club known as the "Amateur Art Study Club" started gathering. It eventually morphed into the Springfield Art Association. In 1949 classes moved out of the home, and it has been used to host events as well as tours to highlight its historical significance.

Erika Holst says this is the first time a remodel of this kind has been done on the property. She points out a shiny black couch that had long been in storage: “It's our oldest piece in the house. It's actually probably as cool as the courting couch but doesn't get the love 'cuz it's not associated with Lincoln. It dates to the 1820s - so one of the earliest pieces of furniture in the state and it had this really nasty Pepto Bismol pink upholstery so we sent it out to be re-upholstered in black horse hair.”

Money was raised from donors and a large match grant helped get the organization to its goal. The first floor of the home is done in the style that it was in 150 years ago. Susan Day, who runs her own local business, has worked on historical projects in Clayville, but this is like nothing else she says. “The parlor will be quite a treat … there are long layers of drapery that probably would have been silk, like a dress you would have seen on Mrs. Lincoln … When you restore things you have to go as far back as you can until you start guessing, so we chose to get the color right on the fabric rather than the pattern, because we couldn't find a pattern like what they would have had.”

A section of wallpaper that was uncovered, it had been installed in 1857
Credit Rachel Otwell/WUIS

Some of the draperies are cobalt blue to match the carpet. Day says, this has been: “A lot of fun to work on because their aesthetic sensibilities aren't like they are now. They would throw colors together that you would never put together today.” The project has uncovered historical treasures, facets of the building no one had known were there, like a portion of wallpaper. “This paper was here when the Edwards family was here, this is the paper that Abraham Lincoln saw when he came to this house, this is the paper that people saw when they came in for Lincoln's funeral, so we kept this original pattern the same and we were able to get this reproduced,” says Holst, while pointing to an area of paper in the library.

Robert Smith is one of two workers carefully laying the paper on the walls. They have to hand trim the pieces. “In this particular house everything is out of level - the base, sides, the corners, so we're having to level everything up … so this is a little slower, but it's coming out real good - it's well worth it,” says Smith. Every facet of this home, from the carpet, to the wallpaper, to the 8 chandeliers that have been cleaned and re-wired, are labors of love - albeit, expensive labors. The attention to detail is demanding and awe-inspiring. And while the lower level is in all its 1857 glory, a renovation to the upper half of the home is still needed.

“We're hoping that people come by and get excited about what's going on and give us the momentum to finish the project,” says curator Erika Holst. The Springfield Art Association wants to raise over $300,000 to complete the upstairs. It has a deadline for a matching grant that expires in 2017. For now, the hope is changes here will help solidify Edwards Place as a central part of the local tourism circuit, and a place Springfield residents can be proud of for generations to come.