Thirty years ago, critics thought he was crazy to invest in Rockford’s historic landmarks. Now, this area architect and his team can have the last laugh, as they leave their marks on several high-profile rehabs in the city’s urban core.
People thought Gary Anderson was crazy when he bought a home in Rockford’s Haight Village neighborhood 38 years ago. His parents wondered: Had he lost his mind?
Although the neighborhood was built by some of the city’s early industrialists and civic leaders, it had become, by the 1970s, a collection of converted multifamily homes and a magnet for poverty.
“Our house was Pepto-Bismol pink,” Anderson says. “It was this behemoth of ugliness.”
The young architect returned the four-family home to a single-family dwelling. Then, he completely restored the exterior. For a year and a half, he finished off the third-floor attic; he next moved on to the second-floor bedrooms and the first floor.
It was an act of love that Anderson has repeated several times during his 45-year career. The principal of Gary W. Anderson Architects, 200 Prairie St., Rockford, is a tireless advocate for the preservation and repurposing of Rockford’s historical structures, and he’s played a quiet behind-the-scenes role in many of this city’s urban transformations.
“Sometimes I wish I would have taken the easier route, but on the other hand, leaving something behind and giving back to the community has been very rewarding and exciting,” he says. “It takes an army to change things, and I find it so exciting to realize that there are a lot more people here who think the same way and want to make a difference.”
Anderson’s reverence for historic structures has put him in touch with treasures such as Tinker Swiss Cottage and led him to inspire new uses for properties like the Prairie Street Brewhouse and the Garrison School Lofts. And, he’s influenced the city’s newer structures, like the Nicholas Conservatory.
Anderson’s full-service architectural firm maintains a diverse portfolio in commercial and office buildings, recreation facilities and new construction. Environmentally conscious architecture is a core component of each project.
Anderson’s firm also provides guidance and planning for urban centers, capital improvements and site master plans. Well acquainted with structuring development deals, Anderson and his team work with clients to analyze the feasibility of a project and shed light on what resources are available to get the job done.
The firm also is familiar with using historic tax credits for redevelopment, such as the River Edge Historic Tax Credit that’s helping to revitalize buildings in downtown Rockford.
“There are far more players now on the controls, and that’s refreshing,” says Anderson. “There are more people who aren’t going to let this community go south. They’re far more invested, mentally and monetarily. That’s what I find so encouraging.”
Getting to this point has not been easy. Anderson first became interested in historic preservation while attending the University of Illinois. “A fellow Rockford architect got me interested in restoration,” he says. “It was one of those monumental changes of direction from what I thought I was going to do.”
Anderson returned to Rockford in 1971 and spent the next decade working at local architectural firms. One of his first projects was to help design a 26-story office building that was slated for the southwest corner of West State and Wyman streets. Eventually, he designed local housing units funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
“The HUD business model drove me away from that kind of work0 and I realized that wasn’t where I wanted to be,” says Anderson. “Being part of the renovation work, where I was working with quality materials and quality buildings – that’s where I wanted to go. When the firm I was at didn’t want to make that a core part of their business, I decided to strike out on my own.”
One of Anderson’s biggest tests came with his work on the Richardson Building, at the northwest corner of State and Wyman. During the 1950s, the building had been covered with enameled steel panels; many of its windows were blocked in and original 1857 stone adornments had been chiseled off. But Anderson’s clients were determined to proceed.
“That vision and perseverance to see what it could be, and what it could be for that landmark of change, was amazing,” he says. “They’d invite people on walk-throughs and the reaction was always, ‘I didn’t know something like this existed in Rockford.’ It became a confidence builder. People thought, ‘if they could do it, could I?’”
Completed in 2004, the Richardson Building has been thoroughly restored and a rooftop deck has been installed. Anderson believes the building was a keystone in changing attitudes and perceptions of downtown.
Across the river, the Prairie Street Brewhouse reveals a stunning example of historic preservation mixed with modern architecture. The century-old building boasts a sleek combination of old brick and exposed wooden beams mixed with modern glass and steel accents. Anderson’s office sits inside, above a former loading dock for train cars. Anderson and his team spent the better part of a decade helping owners Loyd and Diane Koch to bring their vision to life.
Anderson and his team first met the Kochs in 2005, when they helped to create a financial plan and overall vision for the Brewhouse. A few years later, the Kochs returned, ready to begin what would take several years of extensive renovation.
“The banquet center was going to be the last phase of the project, but it actually became the first,” says Anderson. “The guys who were managing the building decided to see, on the internet, how many people might want to do a wedding here. They had maybe 40 bookings in 30 days, and that was a game-changer. We had six weeks to make the building legal and to meet code.”
The building is now geothermal-heated and houses two restaurants, a brewery, multiple meeting venues, several offices and 10 loft apartments. Fehr Graham, an engineering and environmental services provider located across the hall from Anderson’s firm, uses the building as a recruitment tool for potential employees.
“They thought, we could create a working environment that’s cool, that’s on the river, that’s en vogue, and it’s got all the things to say that you can enjoy a great quality of life in Rockford,” says Anderson. “And, oh, by the way, here’s a job offer. That’s proven itself to be huge.”
The recent renaissance in downtown Rockford excites Anderson, who’s playing a big role in transforming many historic properties. He’s played a role in restoring the Rockford Trust Building, also at the corner of Wyman and State. And, he’s engaged in discussions with the Rockford Public Library about creating a modern facility downtown.
Still, being an advocate for change, and creating opportunities ahead of the curve, has brought many challenges.
“Sometimes, I ask myself, ‘Why do I always want to be in the firing line?’ Sometimes, it’s the right thing to do,” says Anderson. “Sometimes, what’s right doesn’t always sit well with people, and to me, truth always wins out. Stand up to what you believe in, and good things will happen.”
Preserving Rockford’s architectural treasures is a marathon, Anderson says, and it’s one that’s worth running.
“I think it’s been exciting and hard work, and sometimes discouraging, but on the other hand, it’s also been very encouraging to see people start to get it, and realize we can’t take these structures for granted,” he says. “You can be a change agent, if you start thinking about what you’re doing. It’s about rebuilding the value of our community.”