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Victorian Geneseo: a step back

GENESEO -- Sometimes Walt Musser likes to sit on the front porch of his Geneseo restaurant and enjoy the view of the Henry County city's Victorian downtown business disrict.

Dispatch/Argus photo by Lydia Sage

Walt Musser, owner of the Victorian Manor Restaurant, 217 S. State St., Geneseo, awaits customers who often visit the Henry County city's Victorian-theme downtown, a revitalization effort started by a group of business people in 1981.

``It's just like stepping back to yesteryear,'' he said of the downtown district, just a few yards to the north of his business.

``It has the atmosphere of the turn-of-the-century, just kind of a yesteryear feel. You still see people coming and going down the streets.

``You just don't see that much in the downtowns in other areas. It goes back to what I felt as a kid.''

Mr. Musser and his wife, Becky, have owned and operated the Victorian Manor Restaurant, 217 S. State St., for almost five years. The restaurant also includes ``A Paige in Time Antique Shoppe.''

Since moving from Rockford to Geneseo, the Mussers often have marveled at the city's unique Victorian theme, which has allowed its business community to grow and prosper, Mr. Musser said.

In Rockford, as in many towns' and cities' downtowns areas, many buildings are vacant and often boarded up, he said.

``That is not the case here,'' he added.

Mr. Musser considers himself lucky to be part of such a success story.

``Whoever it was who had the foresight to do this, I really commend them. It very well could have gone the way of so many other towns,'' he said.

``A restaurant of this size could not exist if there was not some reason for people to come here,'' he said, noting the business supports 26 employees.

``If it wasn't for this Victorian theme, it would not bring people to town and to me,'' he said, noting advertising along Interstate 80 draws more people into town than locals might suspect.

``They come down the street, and they find us, a little bit off the interstate, and they can't believe what they are seeing. They say `This is just the kind of place we were looking for,'|'' he said.

His guest book backs him up, showing patrons from all over the country, as well as the Quad-Cities area.

Many times, he and his staff will give tourists information and directions on how to find some of the city's dozens of Victorian houses which, like the Manor, still retain the elegance of a by-gone era.

The town's rich history and large number of homes dating back to the time settlers flocked to town in the mid- to late-1800's prompted city leaders in 1981 to begin looking for ways to capitalize on those assets.

Downtown revitalization started when a streetscaping plan was developed to enhance the turn-of-the century appearance of the business district.

The plan later was updated, and by the late 1980's and early 1990's, it began to take shape through the efforts of businesses, the city and a local philanthropic foundation.

Geneseo City Clerk Tim Long credits the late mayor Tom Gorman for being a driving force behind the project, pulling business owners into the project and pushing construction, including brick-look sidewalks, trees and turn-of-the-century lighting.

Business owners also were encouraged to hang old-fashioned awnings to complete the look, Mr. Long said.

By 1992, the physical aspects of ``Victorian Geneseo'' were in place, and through the years, has become the city's calling card, complete with a stand-out logo featuring a man, woman and child dressed in period clothing, Mr. Long said.

``There's been a lot of people who have done a lot of hard work to get this project off the ground,'' Mr. Long said.

City leaders now want to extend the Victorian look several blocks south to the junction of I-80 and Illinois 82, where hundreds of tourists a day pull off the interstate for gas and food.

``We want to tie the downtown to that part of town and improve the visual approach to the downtown,'' Mr. Long said.

Although it would be almost impossible to estimate how much the downtown restoration has meant to the city in sales tax revenue, Mr. Long said each year, the city holds its own and sees a modest increase it sales' tax income.

As far as Mr. Musser is concerned, the Victorian downtown makes his business possible and has allowed him to be open seven days a week and feature a full home-style-cooking menu.

Mr. Musser said he is not the only one who enjoys the view from his front porch, which accomodates 30 customers for dining.

``In nice weather, our customers always ask for the tables on the porch first. In fact, people sometimes will wait until a table is cleared so they can sit outside to enjoy the view.''

-- By Lydia Sage (January 26, 1998)

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