Driving past the mansion at 411 College Ave. in DeKalb, people will notice the distinctive architecture, a Greek Classical Revival style, but probably don’t realize it was built by barbed wire baron Issac Ellwood as an enticement to get John Williston Cook to become Northern Illinois University’s first president in 1900.
The massive wooden columns out front make it resemble a “Greek or Roman temple,” according to a description in the book “Landmarks of the Barb City,” written by historian Steve Bigolin.
Over its 118-year history, the home has had only seven owners. The newest owners are James T. Lehan III and his wife, Jessica, who bought the home in March and began some interior repair work, and will move there this weekend from Geneva.
The 3,920-square-foot, two-story home has five bedrooms, a great room measuring 38 feet by 14 feet, plus the kitchen, library, living and dining rooms. It also has a foyer, a screened porch and a large terrace. Out to the northeast in back is the carriage house (garage) with an apartment overhead.
The selling price in March was $285,000. It is interesting to note that the house originally was valued at $75,000 back in 1900.
As the story goes, some of it gleaned from Earl Hayter’s history of NIU in his book “Education in Transition,” Isaac Ellwood and his fellow barbed wire barons Jacob Haish and Joseph Glidden, plus DeKalb Chronicle Editor Clinton Rosette, led the campaign to attract a new college planned by the state to DeKalb. Once they had won the competition for the “normal school,” Ellwood kept his promise to the state college search committee to build a president’s mansion nearby. That helped lure Cook from the presidency of Illinois State Normal to set up the new college.
That is why I wish the old house could talk, as it must have heard details of the early planning for the college, all about the faculty and staff Cook interviewed and selected, and much about his personal life, part of which was a fascination with the new-fangled motorcars. He became one of the first in DeKalb to own one. According to Hayter’s book, he drove it up the plank road a short distance away each day and parked it under the protection of the “Castle” arches.
Getting back to the house, Ellwood sold it after Cook retired, and the second president did not remain there long, as his wife was disabled, which made a two-story house impractical. The buyer was named Ralworth. About 1928 he sold it to the Raymonds, owners of the DeKalb Daily Chronicle. C. Edward Raymond’s family lived in the main house and his brother, Charles, had the apartment in the carriage house, until he purchased a home of his own. The Raymonds lived there 40 years, then in 1968, they sold it to Dr. Stuart Olson, a local physician, who kept it 20 years. The next owners for 10 years were Tom and Brenda McDonald. Then Robert and Megan Morrison (owner of Moxies) owned it until the recent sale to the Lehans.
I asked the Lehans what attracted them to the home – was it the history, the size, its architecture or just a desire to come back to DeKalb? It was all of the above, but then they told me that Jessica’s mother once told her daughter that one day she might live in the Ellwood mansion on North First Street. That did not happen, but the Lehans held their wedding there. Then this house, also built by Isaac Ellwood, caught their attention when it went on the market – and now they own an Ellwood House.
Pretty neat story – a childhood dream come true, almost.