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Societies help keep history current

One of the best things about the Quad-Cities is its rich history, and there are volunteer preservation societies in Moline and Rock Island that work tirelessly to protect and promote that history.

``We really need to get the citizens of the city to recognize the historic significance we have,'' Chris VanLancker, president of the 70-member Moline Preservation Society, said. ``Maybe we don't have as many historic buildings as Rock Island, but we need to protect what we do have.

``My goal has been to make people aware of our group, to help educate people about the history that Moline has and to get more people involved,'' she said. ``The more people we have, the stronger our group becomes and the more that we can do for preservation.''

Ms. VanLancker, co-owner of Model Printers, 320 15th St., joined the group in 1994, after she and her husband won an award from the preservation society for restoring the exterior of their 1872 building.

The three-story structure housed a Belgian newspaper for about 40 years and for 30 years was home to the public library, Ms. VanLancker said. A printing business has been in the building since the turn of the century and in the VanLanckers' family since 1906.

In 1993, Ms. VanLancker went to a cousin's wedding in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and was awestruck at the historic preservation there. ``It's a beautiful old historical town. The whole town is that way,'' she said. ``It really helped us get ideas.

``I like to save what we have,'' Ms. VanLancker said. ``New is nice, but it's also nice to keep some of the old.''

As president, Ms. VanLancker has formed new committees for the group, including education and landmarking. The city's preservation advisory committee makes recommendations on historic landmark nominations, but the society should help individuals assemble applications, she said.

The group helped enact a city preservation ordinance, passed in 1991, form an advisory committee to the city council, and assisted in designation of seven landmark properties to date.

Though the John Deere House is not a designated landmark, the society assisted in saving the vacant 1880 mansion, which had been turned into apartments. ``It's a major landmark in Moline. The name alone attracts people,'' Ms. VanLancker said.

The group worked with the city to market the house, conducted several fundraisers for it, and helped the new owner with interior demolition, cleanup and historical research.

The society has helped create 10 wooden miniature replicas of historic Moline buildings to sell, and will add miniatures this year of Garfield School and Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Ms. VanLancker said.

Both the Moline and Rock Island societies hold annual award ceremonies to honor building owners who improve, renovate or restore historic properties and both have annual tours of cemeteries, with society members taking on the characters of historical figures.

The Rock Island society was formed in 1981 and the city adopted a preservation ordinance in 1984. Like Moline, Rock Island has its own preservation-advisory group, appointed by the mayor, which makes recommendations on landmarking and reviews changes to those properties.

Rock Island has 35 city-landmarked properties and one historic district. It also has 12 sites on the National Register for Historic Places, while Moline has just one.

``One reason for our success is the city gets very much behind preservation in Rock Island,'' society member Jeff Dismer, also chairman of the Rock Island Preservation Commission, said, noting the city bought the Rock Island Depot and Rock Island Armory.

``That says a lot about your community when city government stands behind you,'' he said. The city also established many neighborhood plans that include preservation as a main goal.

``Our goal is educating the public about architectural history and promoting the landmarking process,'' Kim Bolyard, head of the 84-member society, said. Society members do painstaking research on properties nominated to be landmarked, and typically submit 40-page applications, she said.

``I've always been obsessed with old houses. There is something about an old house that really does get to you,'' Ms. Bolyard, who lives in a circa 1872 Italianate home, said. ``Even with the trials and tribulations of an old house, I don't think I could ever get used to living in a new one. I just love the house.''

There's an ambience and character of history in the house. It has a marble fireplace, crown moldings. The detailing and craftsmanship are so solid,'' she said.

Rebecca Davidson, a society member who lives in a 1911 home in the Highland Park historic district, said she fell in love with the house at first sight. Her husband agreed to buy it without even seeing the inside, she said.

``It was just like we belonged. It was like walking into a different time, with the brick streets,'' Mrs. Davidson said. ``The homes are so well-preserved, there are big trees -- it was just perfect.''

Among the Rock Island's society's annual activities is an ``old house'' workshop every April, which gives homeowners tips on repair and restoration work.

The group has produced several walking-tour guides of several city neighborhoods, with photos and capsule histories of notable buildings. The largest project was in 1996, when the society compiled a tour book of 42 historic sites in the city.

``We wanted to have an educational project. Kids are going to be the next stewards of our architectural treasures,'' Ms. Bolyard said, noting the guide was written to interest students. ``We wanted to highlight what Rock Island has to offer and expose them to some of the history.''

The society also decorated a Christmas tree in 1996 for the Festival of Trees that had 200 photographs of historic buildings on it, and the group conducts neighborhood tours.

``A lot of people comment that they love and appreciate the architectural history of the places. They just personally don't want to take on a large project like that,'' Ms. Bolyard said.

``It puts a positive light on Rock Island's past,'' she said. ``You're sharing some of the great secrets. People didn't know all these architectural beauties even existed.''

-- By Jonathan Turner (February 2, 1998)

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