Forlorn and Neglected No More

Rosemary Thornton

Wade-Duncan House
The Wade-Duncan House, with its original limestone retaining wall sat forlorn and neglected for a decade until it was rescued from a demolition list by Margaret Hopkins

It was love at first sight when Margaret Hopkins stumbled upon the 150-year-old brick house, sitting forlonly after a decade of being vacant and largely abandoned.

John Hopkins, her husband and partner in previous old house restorations, had a different reaction to the deteriorating Victorian-Gothic:

"I'm glad it's not mine," he remembers thinking.

Fast forward 14 months. Today John Hopkins has a different view. "I gradually warmed up to the idea of rehabilitating this house," he confesses from the construction chaos that is the home's once formal dining room.

Margaret Hopkins
"I hated to see it sitting there unloved and unattended," Margaret Hopkins said of the historic house she and her family are renovating.

After undertaking two extensive old house renovations in the past two decades, the Hopkins have plunged into the dust and debris once again.

They are rescuing the Wade-Duncan House in Southwestern Illinois from the city of Alton's demolition list.

They expect it will take well over $200,000 of their money -- and a year of their time -- to restore the 5,000 square foot mansion to its once-grand state.

Despite its deterioration in the last decade, the house contains many architectural gems. These include original inlaid oak floors, and a grand staircase and solid walnut balustrade, which still retains its natural finish and 150-year-old patina.

A large butler's pantry with its original built-in cabinets and ornate hardware sits off the downstairs formal dining room. Beyond that is a kitchen, with a smaller original pantry still intact.

Butler's pantry


Above, a close-up of the original hardware in the pantry. At left, the original butler's pantry

The house is simple for a Victorian-Gothic, yet architecturally fascinating.

Two major 19th century additions made the house's style somewhat eclectic. A small front porch visible in an 1880's photo, and probably original to the house, has Italianate elements. By the early 1900s this porch had been replaced with a Greek Revival structure with 22 fluted Ionic columns.

Wade-Duncan House, side
The house from the side, showing the early 1900s front porch and in the foreground, a brick driveway uncovered in the overgrown front yard.

Inside, the house is almost Federal in its simple, but elegant woodwork, fireplace mantels, mouldings, doors and balustrade.

The rise and decline of the Wade-Duncan House

Nothing in the beginnings of the Wade-Duncan house in 1850 would have foretold the neglect it would suffer 150 years later.

Carpenter and builder Samuel Wade moved to Alton from Ipswich, Massachusetts in 1831, and had the distinction of living in the first brick house in Alton.

Somewhere between serving on Alton's first city council in 1837 and being elected mayor for four terms, Wade built the grand brick house that would become known as the Wade-Duncan house.

Parlor Fireplace

Parlor Fireplace
Simple, but elegant fireplaces in the
double parlors are being stripped
and restored

In the basement of the original part of the house, is a curious cubby hole which opens into a small earthen tunnel, about 12 to 15 feet long, leading toward a side street. Several homes in this community were used as part of the Underground Railroad, providing safe haven for escaped slaves. Alton, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, was in the free state of Illinois. Missouri was a slave state.

Famed abolitionist and first martyr of the free press, Elijah Lovejoy, relocated to Alton from St. Louis in the 1830s so he could speak and write more openly and aggressively about the evils of human bondage. Alton's reputation as a sympathetic community and an important stop on the Underground Railroad became widely known. Samuel Wade and his family, builder and first owners of the house, were from Massachusetts, increasing the likelihood that the house could have been a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Local historians have speculated that the small tunnel in the Wade-Duncan House, situated 12 blocks from the Mississippi River, served as a hiding place for slaves traveling the Underground Railroad. Many slaves escaped to Alton on the riverboats and ferries that crossed the Mississippi River several times daily.

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Workers are replacing the slate capping with copper and relining the box gutters. In the process, the home's widow walk in begin restored.

The walk offers a distant view of the Mississippi River, located 12 blocks from the Wade-Duncan House.

Aside from any part it may have played in helping escaped slaves, the Wade-Duncan house was well known in the community as an exceptional home, and had been owned by Alton's most prominent citizens. The house passed to Samuel Wade's granddaughter, who married John Duncan, and remained in the family until 1962. In that year, a prominent Alton psychiatrist and local preservationist became first non-family member to own the property.

Unfortunately the doctor who was to continue caring for the house became ill. In the late 1980s he moved out of the area as his health declined. The house sat vacant and neglected for a decade, until the Hopkins came across it.

Despite its neglect, though, the house grew in architectural significance in recent years as many of Alton's oldest homes were demolished in the name of progress and revitalization. The Wade-Duncan House, located in a quiet area near downtown, is one of the oldest surviving homes in the community.

The beginning of the Hopkins relationship with the house

Margaret and John first became interested in the old house in September 1998, while driving to Marquette High School, where their three teenagers were students. The couple had decided to take a drive by the old house after a friend mentioned that it might soon be up for sale.

Window lock
An original window lock - ready to be restored.

"The house had personality," Margaret said "I hated to see it sitting there unloved and unattended. I knew if it was meant to be, the deal would come together."

After seeing the property from the outside, she began writing letters to the owner and making phone calls to a real estate agent who would later list the property. She persisted with calls and letters until November 1999 -- when she and her husband purchased the historic house.

A home inspector hired by the Hopkins' before the purchase assured them that the old house was structurally sound and in surprisingly good condition, considering that it had been vacant for nearly a decade.

The Wade-Duncan House rises again

Restoration work on the Wade-Duncan House began with asbestos abatement. Professionals were hired to remove asbestos insulation from old boiler pipes in the basement.

Next, contractors laid down plastic sheathing and plywood over the beautiful inlaid oak floors to protect them from the demolition and construction work.

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The dining room, showing original window and wainscoating. The wall between the dining room and a side porch was removed to add light and an open feeling to the room. A steel I-beam now supports the rooms above.

Ceilings were pulled down throughout the first floor to give workers unrestricted access to the plumbing and electrical systems. New wiring, pluming and ductwork will be installed throughout the house. A four-zone heating and cooling system will be installed, replacing the existing radiator heat and old boiler.

The plaster walls will be preserved and skim-coated with a fresh surface coat of plaster.

The home's three fireplaces will be restored to working order, which includes removing an old furnace flue pipe from the parlor fireplace. At some point in the home's past, a 10" flue pipe was run through the old brick firebox and into the chimney to vent the furnace. A fourth fireplace was recently discovered behind a plaster wall.

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This upstairs room has two windows which open into the second floor sunroom. They will be converted to half-windows, when the room becomes the new family room.

On the outside, the slate roof is in excellent condition, but the box gutters and the surrounding soffit and fascia need extensive repair.

The windows are the original four over fours and are in surprisingly good condition. The muntins are unusually wide and most of the panes are original, as evidenced by the wavy glass. They've been protected for 150 years by working shutters, wooden storms and most recently aluminum storms.

Amazingly, all of the home's original 10 foot tall wooden shutters are in place and in good condition. The windows will be restored, as needed, but for the most part they need very little work.

While pulling down a recent, small addition on the back of the house, workers found the lines and evidence of an old back porch. Now the Hopkins intend to recreate the porch as closely as possible.

More discoveries


When reclaiming the badly overgrown yard, the Hopkins discovered a beautiful curved brick driveway hidden under dirt and debris. The sweeping pathway, which runs from the street to the front porch and back to the street, traverses much of the spacious front yard. Margaret found out that the driveway was laid about 25 years ago to replace an older brick driveway that had crumbled and failed.

Another discovery was paint shadows in one of the double parlors, suggesting that the room had built-in bookcases. Margaret found the bookcase doors in the attic and hopes the recreate the originals.

Floor plans

The Wade-Duncan House never suffered the indignity of being divided into apartments like so many other large, old homes. Its original layout is intact.

A two-story additions on the back of the house probably dates to the 1880s, and is level with the first floor, but two or three steps down from the original building on the second floor.

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Closets are being added to the upstairs bedrooms

The lower floor addition contains the butler's pantry, large kitchen, a rear staircase, hallway and a bathroom. The upper floor contains two bedrooms and a dormitory style shower suggesting that the upper addition served as maids' quarters.

Spacious double parlors site on opposite sides of the large entry foyer with its grand staircase.

Upstairs, there are six bedrooms and two full baths, both of which were installed or remodeled in the early 1920's. The Hopkins plan to use one of the upstairs bedrooms as a family room.

No novices to old houses

John and Margaret Hopkins and their three children are no strangers to the sometimes overwhelming job of old house restoration.

Their current home, in Granite City, is over 100 years old. The Hopkins bought it in 1980 and did a major restoration. In 1986, a house fire caused extensive damage forcing them to recreate all their hard restoration work.

Margaret says their three children, ages 19, 17 and 14 have had some mixed feelings about this latest project.

"My middle son is excited about it," she says. "He has the vision that we have. The other two think we've lost our mind."

Important and irreplaceable

Bob St. Peters, president of Alton Area Landmarks Association, is glad to see the house taken off the city's demolition list and to become a family home again.

"The architectural and historical aspects of these big old homes are important and they are irreplaceable," he said. "We need to keep encouraging people to improve their property and educate people who have a historical structure that they've got something there worth keeping."

The Hopkins have targeted early September 2000 as a move-in date, and have hired a local contractor with a crew of five to carry out the restoration. Margaret is serving as the general contractor, coordinating work schedules and making decisions as the restoration progresses.

"It's a big project," she says, "but we're getting a lot of encouragement from the neighbors and the whole community. People we don't know have written and told us how glad they are to see some life coming back into the old house."

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About the Author
By Rosemary Thornton, contributing editor

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