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Saving a piece of history: Through donation and purchase agreement, The Galena Foundation plans to save historic Gear Street house

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GALENA–The small brick and stone house at 348 Gear Street is having some life breathed back into it after years of sitting vacant. The Galena Foundation recently acquired the house through a combination donation and purchase agreement. Expanding the mission of the foundation, the goal is to stabilize the structure and do the work necessary before hopefully selling the property to a contractor who will take the house the rest of the way.

The foundation has hired White Construction to do much of the work, and in just the past several weeks, there’s been considerable progress. It is a bit overwhelming when one takes into account all that needs to happen.

The roof was rebuilt, said Jeremy White, and a new rubber membrane roof is in place. Jo-Carroll Energy also ran new electrical service to the house.

“It’s got a ton of potential,” said White, noting the structure is now safe from the elements.

In the spring, Earl Thompson Masonry will do brick and limestone work. The soffit and fascia will be repaired as well.

The next step, White said, is to completely gut the interior of the house.

The foundation board looked at the property for about a year as part of the general discussion about the state of housing in the community, said Ken Robb, president of The Galena Foundation. The brick house that was torn down a couple of years ago just down the block from 348 Gear was symptomatic of the issues at hand: there are many historically significant homes that showcase the character and history of the town that are in deteriorating condition and getting worse with each passing day.

Foundation board members, other residents and city staff started questioning what can be done to save these homes.

The foundation first saw the potential to make a difference after a home on West Street that had extensive water damage, mildew and rot was saved. The owner wanted the foundation to step in, but then Paul Jackson took the reins and started the clean-up process before contractor Chuck Horton purchased the property and finished the work before selling the house. That experience really demonstrated to the foundation the good that could result with some vision and hard work.

When the owner of 348 Gear talked to Craig Brown, a local attorney and foundation board member, the foundation board agreed it was time to expand the role of the foundation from mainly being involved in public properties and churches to residences.

The mission is to “initiate and/or provide financial support for community projects which preserve, enhance or nurture Galena’s heritage, culture and quality of life.” It’s also about making the community more attractive, said Robb, and addressing issues with aging structures.

In addition to houses that are falling into disrepair, the foundation is deeply concerned about other privately held properties, such as the former St. Mary’s school property, which is now listed on Landmarks Illinois list of Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois list, as well as the Marine Hospital.

The entire board toured the 348 Gear St. property to see first hand the amount of work that needed to be done and the potential. A donation and purchase agreement was worked out.

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“This is really The Galena Foundation saying if we’re in a position to work with the current owner and make something they are comfortable with, we are going to step forward and see what we can do,” said Robb.

Jim Baranski, a local architect, drew up blueprints of a possible floor plan for 348 Gear, which show a spacious, attractive three-bedroom home.

The Galena Foundation, Robb said, is committed to controlling the investment and not simply throwing money at the property. Board members want the project to have a reasonable chance for resale and a return on the investment. The goal is to put the property back in the hands of a private owner.

Robb credited board members and contractors who have been willing to step up and go above and beyond to make this project happen.

“That really makes a big difference,” he said.

 

Delving into history

As the months have passed, Robb has done some digging into the history of the structure.

“This house has seen a lot of history,” said Robb, who was surprised by what he found in the records of the historical collections room at the Galena Public Library. “It’s just amazing.”

He sifted through old copies of The Galena Gazette and city directories to find out all sorts of information.

Robb found at the earliest occupant was Father John McMahon, the first pastor of St. Michael’s Catholic Church, who rented the property in 1832. This information, Robb said, suggests 348 Gear is one of the oldest properties in the city.

In 1849, Gideon Stoddard and his wife, Martha, purchased the property and lived there until 1870. Stoddard was an alderman in the second ward and one of the first 100 volunteers to sign up in April 1861 at the outbreak of the Civil War. He was a sergeant in the Galena Volunteers.

Father Patrick Farrelly, pastor at St. Michael’s from 1869 to 1889, took possession of the house in 1870 and his estate sold the house for $350 in 1893. During that period, the house was used as a parochial school, Robb found.

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