A 5-foot-by-7-foot popcorn shop matters. So does the mid-century brick square that houses Geneva Cleaners. And a grand 1930s house in Wayne.
That was the message of the organizers from Preservation Partners of Fox Valley, who hosted a three-hour bus tour of more than 20 sites throughout the Fox Valley on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
About 50 area residents boarded a coach bus to take a winding tour through Batavia, Geneva, St. Charles and Wayne and discover the history — from the quirky to the sad — behind the properties that they may have driven by countless times.
"There is so much in your own back yard but you just don't know the history," said Ira Marcus, of Carpentersville, as he sipped a drink outside The Outpost General Store in Wayne, one of the stops. "I am really appreciating how eclectic everything is."
That was one of the goals, said Elizabeth Safanda, executive director of Preservation Partners, a nonprofit.
"What we wanted to do was identify a range of structures off the beaten path," Safanda said. Organizers identified properties from the "tiny to the monumental, low-style to high-style, cherished to abandoned, traditional to avant-garde, from the 1830s to the 1950s."
One characteristic unified them, though. The structures on the tour are not protected by historic district status, Safanda said.
The participants craned their necks to peer out windows at historic homes tucked behind treelines and at downtown buildings with surprising histories. One such spot is Bellevue Place in Batavia, which was once a boarding school and a home for unwed mothers, in addition to its more well-known identity as a onetime institution for "nervous" women, including Mary Todd Lincoln.
Participants might not have known that the now-shuttered Merra Lee shops on Third Street in Geneva were once a livery stable, an auto dealership and the Tri-City Garage. Or that a Greek Revival home in Batavia on Illinois Street was once a dilapidated farmhouse at the corner of Bricher Street and Illinois Route 38 in Geneva that was later moved to its new spot.
Or that the 14-foot-by-14-foot building at Third and Cedar streets in St. Charles was Kane County's first law office, and that it was built near the lawyer's home because his wife was nervous about attacks by Native Americans. Or that Batavia resident Bill Huber's renovation of The Hurlbut House, an Italianate built in 1855, includes some spades in the ornamentation above the windows, in honor of the legend that the original owner lost the house in a poker game.
Safanda, and Margaret Eagan, assistant director of Preservation Partners of Fox Valley, provided all the tidbits by microphone as the bus lumbered down residential streets.
"Every year, I love to see the historic structures," said Gloria Klimek, a Preservation Partners of Fox Valley member, who added that she always learns something new about the area's history.
Until the tour, she hadn't been through the neighborhood in Geneva's northeast corner, where the 1838 Alexander House sits on Sandholm Street after being moved in 1870.
Each of the properties included yellow "This Place Matters" signs somewhere on site; the tagline is from the National Trust for Historic Preservation for nonprofits to use as they advocate for preservation.
Safanda provided one home as an example of the potential impact of the properties' unprotected status. The 1869 Atwater House, a Queen Anne in Geneva, is across the street from a grand stone house. The stone house is in the historic district and changes must be approved by a historic preservation board. But the Atwater House is not, Safanda said. It was purchased by owners who preserved it, but it could just as easily been purchased by owners who chose to tore it down and build new on the large lot, she said.
Developers of the Judd Mansion property, 6th and Indiana avenues in St. Charles, chopped down several giant oaks in advance of a planned townhouse development. Those townhouses never materialized, and now the property is for sale, she said.
Participants were encouraged to visit ppfv.org to vote for their top choices.