Thursday, September 24, 2009

Woodstock Children's Home (Grace Hall)

The following letter was received from former resident Woodstock resident, Esther Hall Gordon. Ms. Gordon writes about the building that has been in our news recently and has generally been referred to as "Grace Hall."

Another reason to remember this building, located at 318 Christian Way, is its prominent use as the Woodstock Children's Home. Ms. Gordon may travel from her home in Battle Creek, Michigan, to be present at the October 6th meeting of the Woodstock City Council.

Watch for more information about Ms. Gordon's visit to Woodstock and address to the City Council. Her letter follows.

"Dear Mr. Gus Philpott:

"As a dependent and neglected minor from Chicago, my full legal guardianship was providentially relinquished by my birth parents and accepted by the late Reverend Robert Murfin, Director of the Evangelical Child Welfare Agency (ECWA), previously located at 127 North Dearborn Avenue in Chicago, and currently known as the Evangelical Child & Family Agency. Reverend Murfin then assigned my physical custody to the Woodstock Children's Home, where I found a refuge from my birth parents from 3/28/63 until high school graduation on 6/7/71. Moreover, I am keenly aware of the rich historical background of the place which became my "home" for eight years and three months, and consider myself most fortunate to have been privileged to live, for the greater part of my eight years of residency, in a suitable boarding school type of environment, where, for the most part, I received adequate care from both nonprofessional and professional staff, most of whom projected a genuine sense of concern as to my immediate well-being. Conversely, there were still many incidences of "preferential treatment" given out by both professional and nonprofessional staff alike, to a select few high school-aged residents, whose physical custody and care had also been entrusted to the Woodstock Children's Home, but whose names will not be divulged in this particular forum.

"Additionally, some of us, including myself, endured silently under ongoing emotional abuse, which consisted of demeaning, harsh, and punitive treatment at the hands of a few nonprofessional houseparents or relief workers. Also, we witnessed firsthand very specific incidences of blatant and willful improper care and treatment doled out to a few children's home residents, especially those whose behavior mirrored their underlying emotional pain and grief over the loss of their "homes," "families," and "parent(s)," despite a fairly minimal and, more frequently, an extremely inadequate physical, emotional, and spiritual environment, as provided by their families of origin. Like many others, I had to grow up very quickly, attend school regularly, participate in church activities faithfully, as well as perform my chores at the children's home, and hold down a job in the community, so that I could plan for my future. In short, I become a good parent to myself, which is not at all bad!

"I read, with consuming interest, your letter, of 3/9/09, as posted to the Woodstock Advocate, along with the published Woodstock City Council Meeting minutes, and various letters to the editors of the Northwest Herald and the Woodstock Independent relative to the above concern. I wish to thank you so much for your interest in the preservation of Harrison House, aka Grace Hall, and the most unfortunate, albeit exploitative, agenda which the Woodstock Christian Life Services organization has now set forth, apparently in full cooperation with the City of Woodstock, which, it would appear, is equally complicit in this, as yet, unrealized business venture. Unfortunately, your keen insight with regard to the "waiting games" being played out between WCLS and the City of Woodstock, primarily in connection with the exploitative agenda on behalf of Woodstock Christian Life Services is "right on." Thus, I would strongly emphasize garnering more expansive, state-wide support for this particular matter. If left to Woodstock's small town politics (or perhaps, by now, more aptly described as "pseudo city" politics), the building will fall without so much as a peep from anyone beyond the city limits. Thus, my purpose for writing to you, as well as other concerned Woodstock residents, and municipal government officials, is to raise awareness of the inevitable. To be sure, I will be contacting as many former residents of Harrison House as possible to appeal for their involvement and input.

"I have also read, with even greater interest, today's Woodstock Independent article, "Tensions Force Council to Examine HPC Role," in which reference is again made to the demolition of Harrison House, aka Grace Hall. Have all interested parties "tabled" their previous efforts or negotiations with the city council or WCLS? What is the current level of involvement on the part of the Illinois Historical Preservation Society, if any, or with those whose primary motivation is to preserve Harrison House, aka Grace Hall, not merely out of consideration for those of us who made our home there, but, also, in keeping with their consuming passion for historical preservation of worthwhile sites? In my opinion, the building's historical significance is fairly unknown to the general public. Therefore, many are either unaware of its impending disappearance from the landscape, due to intentional efforts by WCLS to evade questions from concerned parties, specifically as to their projected date of demolition, while they remove their belongings from the building, and hope everyone just forgets about Harrison House. Meanwhile, in the hope of silencing the "troublemakers," has the City of Woodstock also continued to "let the clock run down" on Harrison House's existence, with the hope that most local and distant folk are just plain apathetic about this wonderful old building? It would be good if Nancy L. Baker's excellent book "Images of America: Woodstock" could be promoted through local high school history classes, as Baker documents very well the historical legacy of the community of Woodstock, as well as provides an most informative look at the history of Todd School in chapter four.

"During recent follow-up telephone and email conversations with Ms. Cindy Smiley, who, incidentally, has been most supportive of my efforts to contact the City of Woodstock, WCLS, and former Woodstock Mayor Bill Anderson, who also happened to reside at Harrison House, aka Grace Hall, during the years I lived at the Main Building, it was conveyed that no further action had been taken by anyone from WCLS, as to submission of specific future building plans or demolition requests. With the obvious caveat that WCLS would eventually submit their expanded building plans, whereupon issuance of a demolition permit would be granted by the City of Woodstock, Ms. Smiley advised me to contact Woodstock Christian Life Services directly to inquire as to their current scheduled date of demolition. Yesterday morning, in response to my telephone query as to scheduled date of demolition, I received an, "I don't know" answer from a female worker with WCLS, which, of course, I don't buy for one minute.

"Also, Ms. Smiley recommended I contact local community residents and activists, Mr.and Mrs. Dan and Carol (Roskie) Lemanski, whose father Coach Anthony Roskie coached at the Todd School for Boys, and with whom I later became acquainted during his tenure as a Woodstock Community High School coach, which I did. Except for a most timely return phone call from Mrs Lemanski this afternoon, during which we discussed at great length the current status of the demolition of Harrison House, aka Grace Hall, in addition to the past impossible requests set forth by the City of Woodstock CounciI, e.g., "raise one million dollars in six months," I remain unenlightened as to the "hidden agenda" with regard to destruction of this historic landmark. Is one million dollars the current "fair market value" of Harrison House, aka Grace Hall? To be sure, there are some things on which we cannot place a price tag. This is definitely one of them.

"From my perspective, the financial exploitation of not only a unique local historical site most worthy of preservation, i.e., Harrison House, aka Grace Hall - the sole remaining building of the Todd School for boys,- needs to be kept at the forefront of Illinois' historical preservation groups by local community activists, such as yourself and the Lemanskis, as well as by those previous residents, such as myself, who actually lived in Harrison House, but who have since moved away from Woodstock and relocated to other states.

"How many of the locals from Springfield would have stood still for one minute at the suggestion of demolishing the site of Lincoln's birthplace and home, incidentally, both of which I have visited, to make way for more "financially profitable and lucrative exploits in real estate? None! From my perspective, Harrison House could be preserved solely on the basis of its noteworthy legacy as the Todd School for Boys, where many students, such as actor and playwright Orson Wells, lived, studied and received a quality education. Harrison House, aka Grace Hall, does not belong just to the Woodstock Christian Life Services enterprise, nor does it belong to the City of Woodstock, or to the state and local historical societies,- and, no - not even to those of us who lived out our minor years as residents of Harrison House, and attended and studied at Woodstock Community Schools, worshiped in Woodstock churches, and worked for Woodstock employers. Harrison House belongs to ALL of us.

"I would be more than happy to travel to Woodstock and meet with the City Council at its next regularly scheduled meeting, as well as Woodstock Christian Life Services representatives. However, I see the City Council's October 9th meeting has been cancelled with no rescheduled date. Please advise as to next meeting, as well as whether I need to contact city offices to be placed on the agenda of the next meeting, when this matter will again be discussed. Has anyone considered purchasing the existing property and renovating it into a bed and breakfast? Or, if not appropriate for commercial zoning, and residents oppose that idea, why not just maintain the site, as it is currently in good repair, based upon my observations during a "walk through" with staff last September 2006 during my Woodstock High School Reunion for the Class of 1971.

"I speak on behalf of the countless disadvantaged and indigent children and adolescents, who, through no fault of our own, lost our families of origin, and left whatever homes we might have known, no matter how inadequate, to become residents of the main building and Harrison House on the campus of the Woodstock Children's Home. Please help me preserve the memories of this building and do not allow its destruction. I am deeply disappointed to hear that this building will also soon be obliterated from the landscape. It was, for so many young people, including myself who, through no fault of our own, needed a haven from an unsuitable home environment.

"In September 2006, I returned to Woodstock during the weekend of my high school reunion (WHS Class of 1971), but instead of going to reunion events, chose to visit Harrison House, where I did a "walk through," and spoke with several workers. It is the only vestige left of my childhood "home," and a place where I actually stayed for eight consecutive years! Really, it is the only place to which I can still return and feel as though my childhood was not totally swept away by unfortunate circumstances, broken relationships, and demolished buildings.

"Hopefully, I'll be able to visit one more time, and take my own pictures before the demolition, so that I can show my adult sons and my grandchildren where I lived as a girl


"Esther Hall Gordon
207 Embury Drive.
Battle Creek, MI 49014
(269) 274-0793

"cc: Terry Egan, Executive Director, Woodstock Christian Life Services; 350 Christian Life Way; Woodstock, IL 60098"


Gerry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gerry said...

I have personally spent several years living in this building and it bring back alot of memories. Whether to tear it down or not----- I have mixed emotions. One question arises, What is going to replace the building? Can it be saved for some special purposes that it has served as in the past?
Gerry Black
PO Box 366 Yorkville,Ill 60560

Gus said...

Gerry, there is new interest by several previously-uninvolved people. Will you please email me at or call me? I'm in the phone book. A last-minute rally is not too late.

WCLS' goal is to demolish Grace Hall and make way for one duplex on the Grace Hall site and three other duplexes nearby, along with several more on their property.

WCLS satisfied the City Council by looking busy and accomplishing nothing toward adaptive re-use. Their plan has always been to tear it down.

The City Council has failed to respect (and follow) the historic preservation ordinance.