A Mansion Abandoned
An early preservation cause in Springfield
April 22, 1976
In which I try to rouse the rabble in one of my apprentice opinion columns from IT’s old Forum section. Many years years after this was written, what had become known as the Booth-Grunendike house stumbled into the future as offices and low-end apartments, then collapsed financially. It was in foreclosure when two local entrepreneurs bought it and converted it into a very popular pub-brewhouse. A project that pleases preservationists and lovers of decent ales is to be applauded.
The Grunendike house, a grand remnant of a fine architectural line, has been threatened by the decision to sell it at auction to the highest bidder. Last week, the Springfield Historic Sites Commission took two important steps toward preserving it: 1) It will apply to the National Register of Historic Places to protect the house against demolition; and 2] It called for a public meeting, April 20 at 7:30 at the Christ Episcopal Church, to rally support for the home.
During the session last week, Bill Farrar of the Department of Conservation noted that public opinion had been essential to saving the Powers-Jarvis Mansion in Decatur last month. Agreed Carrol Hall, vice-president of the Historic Sites Commission: "Public opinion and public pressure are a very important thing. This is one of the problems of Springfield. The community hasn't been stirred up in the proper way.”
As the following account makes clear, the Grunendike house deserves some stirring up. The house was built around 1855—exactly when no one knows for sure—by hardware store owner Edward Pease, and Amasa S. Booth bought it in 1881. Booth was the son of a Yankee carriage maker, founder of the firm of Booth & McClosker, and Booth the younger made his living at the family's wagon works at Eighth and Washington. Booth's daughter Mary was sixteen when she moved into the house with her parents in 1881. Mary lived for another eighty-six years after that, until she was 102, and she never lived anywhere else. At 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 15, 1976, the house will be sold at auction.
When Mary Booth Grunendike moved into the house as a teenager, the neighborhood around Sixth and Jackson streets was home to much of the town's commercial and professional elite. Across the street from the Booth home, where the Springfield Marine Bank's drive-in facility is now, the Bunns had a house; a few doors north was the Herndon place. They were all large houses with spacious grounds (the Booths had a vineyard) within strolling distance of the hotels, restaurants, theaters—and neighbors—around which Springfield social life revolved in the waning years of the nineteenth century. It was possible for a banker or lawyer to leave his lunch at the club in the heart of downtown and nestle into a seat in his garden in time for coffee, with nothing more distracting than the lazy clatter of a passing horse-drawn trolley to divert his attention. It was a good life—the best life, in fact, that money could buy.
But what made the near south side such an attractive place for homes also made it attractive to merchants. Slowly, over two generations, businesses took over the neighborhood—first a new gas station on the corner, then a second one down the street, then an office, maybe a shop in between. Each new gas station and office diminished the neighborhood's value as a place to live, and the process slowly spread, like mold on bread.
Parts of the block went for the construction of huge new club buildings like the Elks Club, the K. of C. Hall, and the Masonic Temple; the rest went for parking lots. The well-to-do were elbowed out by commercialization, but they were never its victims. Some of them encouraged it; the unhappy addition of a two-story red-brick apartment house to the south of the Booth home was made by Booth himself—in what had been his vineyard. Later generations of Bunns and Herndons and their neighbors were shuttling by automobile between downtown and their new houses in distant refuges, like Hawthorne Place south of Washington Park.
Still, out of sentiment or stubbornness, a few of the older residents stayed on. Miss Alice Bunn lived in her home next to the Elks Club until the 1950s. Mary Booth Grunendike stayed on the longest of any of them—eighty-six years. Even when she died in 1967 there were still people living in the area, most of them in a few scattered apartment houses and in the upper floors of converted single-family homes. But it wasn't a residential neighborhood anymore; it wasn't much of a neighborhood at all. Now the woman who owns the property, Mary Grunendike's granddaughter, is moving into an apartment.
Floyd Barringcr lists the Grunendike house among nearly fifty he singled out in his Historic Homes of Springfield, published in 1966. Barringer calls the house "a classic example of the French Imperial or French Second Empire Style," a distinction earned chiefly by its elaborately dormered mansard roof. (The front porch was added by a later, less consistent hand.) Beyond its architectural significance, the old Booth house is one of the few tangible reminders of a time and style of life as dead as the people who lived it. How much longer it survives depends on who buys it on May 15, and why. ●