I’m writing today to ask for our citizens’ VOTE of support, on an issue about which I feel very passionate. That is, the restoration and preservation of Shelbyville’s most unique and historic structure, the Chautauqua Building. This 20 sided arena was built in 1903, at a cost of $75,000 by visionary leaders of our community at the time, and has been the centerpiece of our park and our community, both physically and culturally for 117 years.
Next Tuesday, March 17th, the voters of Shelbyville will be asked to vote on a referendum to advise the City whether to preserve and repair, or to destroy and demolish, this one-of-a-kind-in-the-world historic gem.
In 2009 Landmarks Illinois declared the Chautauqua building one of the 10 most endangered historic places in Illinois, and they did so again in 2018. For the past several years, I have worked with other volunteers to raise money and awareness for this cause. We were making great progress, until we discovered new and dangerous structural damage to 3 roof truss/column interfaces, which put a halt to our plans until we can address these repairs. That is where we are today. The City Council, of which I’m now a Commissioner, wants to hear from you, to decide the fate of the building. We have to decide whether to spend $750,000 – $800,000 to do the structural repairs, and make the building usable again, or spend $60,000 – $100,000 to demolish the building. The money would come from EXISTING city funds, and would NOT result in a tax increase.
Some disinformation has been passed around, which needs to be addressed when deciding how to vote on this issue. I’d like to dispel some of these misunderstandings now. First of all, NO, we DID NOT spend all (or even most) of the money (city funds and donations) on engineering studies, especially NOT on JUST ONE TRUSS, as was put out by a detractor. Most of the money was paid to Brick Holland Construction for substantial repairs and reinforcement to the truss structure, and then shoring work done when water damage deteriorated the 3 failing column joints later. Yes, a fair amount has been spent on engineering over the past decade, but all very NECESSARY and REQUIRED before repairs could be made, due to the complex and unique nature and design of the building. Patchwork, while well-meaning, has proven to be the WRONG way to repair the building. We also spent a fair amount putting a temporary roof membrane in place on the clerestory (top) section, and replacing the windows, to prevent further weather infiltration and damage.
Misunderstanding number two. Over the past decade, the one thing I’ve heard more than anything else, is “If your going to save it, you need to USE it! It’s locked up and never used, so why save it?” I totally agree. And so do ALL the people I know that are passionate about saving the building. Several years ago, we presented to the City Council, a Business and USE plan. It detailed a comprehensive plan developed to make the building viable and sustainable, and detailed a LONG list of uses for the building, including rentals for events and weddings, festivals, music and art performances, tourism events, vendor fairs, historical museum displays around the interior walls, and a renewed Chautauqua Days festival.
Volunteers were busily implementing several aspects of this plan, and had held a number of new events in the building recently, until the structural damage was discovered, which made us put our plans on hold temporarily. Again USE OF THE BUILDING is the most important component, and the very reason we want to save it. I would not be in favor of spending the money to save it, if we just planned to keep it locked up and not used.
Misunderstanding number three. “It’s just an old building. We could build a modern one for less than it would cost to repair.” This is simply NOT true. A modern building, with all the current building codes, with anything near the kind of space and stage that we have, would cost in the millions. And in the current financial climate, we simply will NOT ever approve building such a replacement. Once it’s gone, it’s gone folks, and it WON’T be replaced!
And clearly, this is much more than just an old building. It is documented to be the last of its kind, a true wonder of architectural and historical significance, and an important part of our community’s heritage and, potentially, its future. Just the Robert Root sculptures over the stage alone are a priceless art piece, from our VERY OWN famed painter and sculptor. That alone is reason enough to save the building.
Keep in mind that we are a TOURISM community. And tourism represents our best hope for a bright and prosperous future. Lake Shelbyville attracts hundreds of thousands of people annually, and that tourism is a major support for our business community and tax base. To attract even more visitors, we need ALL of our attractions working for us. Tourists often say they are attracted to our wonderful park, sunken gardens, recreational trails and historic homes and buildings. They aren’t coming here to see Walmart and McDonalds. The communities which save and develop what is unique and special about them, are the successful tourism communities of the future.
And then there are the critics of our city leaders neglecting the building. How did we get to this point? Clearly, it is the City’s fault, for the predicament we find ourself in, and the condition of the building today. Decades of neglect and deferred maintenance allowed the building to deteriorate. But I’m not here to place blame on individuals. I understand hindsight is 20-20, and good people were just trying to make ends meet, and making tough decisions about what needed attention and money now, and what would have to wait. But now the Chautauqua Building can’t wait. The money we saved by NOT taking care of it for decades, NEEDS to be spent now to save it!
We are now working with a master carpenter, who has extensive experience with building timber structures, moving, repairing and rebuilding historic buildings, barns and wooden structures similar to ours. I have seen some of his work, and it is AMAZING! He assures us that our building is not too far gone to repair, and that we CAN save and restore the building to its former glory. He has an engineered plan (already paid for), and is willing to do the work, as soon as we give the go ahead to do so.
PLEASE join me in saving this unique and grand structure, for the benefit of generations to come. I’ve always believed that, as city leaders, we have the weighty responsibility of preserving, to the best of our ability, the assets which we are TEMPORARILY entrusted. If we demolish the building, it’s gone forever – just a memory faded into history. If we save it, it can be a treasure for many generations to come, helping to attract tourism and serving as an event venue and historic museum, and keeping our history and heritage alive. I need your VOTES to make this happen. I’m asking you to do what is right for our City and its future. PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, mark your calendars, and vote YES on March 17th to Save Our Chautauqua.
Mark Shanks, Shelbyville Commissioner of Parks and Public Properties