The story of Rockford’s long industrial history is plenty obvious in the abandoned factories surrounding the city’s core. As local preservationists rush to save these landmarks before it’s too late, they’re helping to write the next chapter while recording the stories of our past.
Since its beginning as a pioneer settlement in 1834, Rockford has been a town of industry, a place where people made things for a living. From the lumber of Germanicus Kent’s first sawmill to components for the nation’s aerospace industry that put Rockford-made products on the moon and beyond, “Made in Rockford” has had a worldwide impact.
Part of that 190-year-old legacy is an abundance of historic buildings in the city that no longer serve the purpose for which they were built. While some still contain thriving companies, many have fallen victim to the wrecking ball as they become abandoned and deteriorate beyond repair. Others have been given new life by municipalities, owners and investors who renovated, repaired or repurposed these historic structures before they were demolished.
A partial list of such recent successes in downtown Rockford includes the Prairie Street Brewhouse, the UW Health Sports Factory and the Embassy Suites Hotel, as well as the expansion of numerous restaurants, retail spaces and the addition of more than 500 market-rate housing units.
Currently, Urban Equity Properties is in the final months of converting a 130-year-old industrial complex (formerly Eclipse Brass Works), at 700 S. Main St., into a residential loft apartment building called the Water Power Lofts. And, after many fits and starts, the City of Rockford may have found a willing-and-able developer to create a mixed-use enterprise out of the sprawling 22-acre Barber-Colman campus at Rock Street off South Main Street.
In order to promote more reinvestment in Rockford’s industrial legacy and provide viable alternatives to disinvestment and demolition, local architectural firm Studio GWA joined forces with Benjamin Historic Certificates (BHC), a Chicago-area preservation firm, to prepare a team proposal for a state grant to survey and evaluate the remaining inventory of Rockford’s historically significant industrial buildings. The proposal was created by BHC and presented to the City of Rockford. The grant was received in 2021 from the State Historic Preservation office of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, with matching funds from the City of Rockford.
“We’ve been involved in many commercial projects using the revitalization and reuse of Rockford’s industrial buildings,” says Gary Anderson, founder of Studio GWA. “We felt it was time to quantify and prioritize the remaining stock and promote their protection before it’s too late.”
The survey was limited to buildings constructed between 1850 and 1930, a period of major industrial growth in Rockford which was ended abruptly (although not permanently) by the Great Depression. Because one of Anderson’s ultimate goals was to nominate some buildings for the National Register of Historic Places, structures already on the Register were not included in this survey. Recording the history of Rockford’s industrial growth during this period was not part of the original grant.
The survey work was done between September 2021 and March 2022. An initial list of 75 buildings was expanded to 90; it covered more than 383 acres from all quadrants of the city. The research team included Susan Benjamin and Andrew Elders of BHC, Gary Anderson and Therese Rowinski from Studio GWA, and 10 amateur volunteers from the community (including this author). The team was tasked with inspecting and photographing the properties, as well as doing the preliminary historical research of each building.
Local preservationist/historians Bill Edmundson, Roger Benedict, and Kurt and Sarah Bell shared their extensive personal collections of documents and photographs. Jean Lithgow and Marie Barcelona at the Rockford Public Library’s Local History Room were invaluable resources as well.
The motivation for all of this effort was not just to save old buildings. Expensive demolition does little for a community but create an empty lot that remains vacant for years. Putting an underutilized or empty building back on the tax rolls can increase investment and add value to a neighborhood. It can also prevent a company from locating on the edge of a city, often eliminating farmland or natural areas, and perhaps necessitating a longer commute for workers.
“Historic preservation is only one piece of this puzzle,” says Anderson. “The other piece is economic development.”
The main impediment to recycling these old buildings has often been the high cost to renovate or repurpose them. But Rockford has a proven record of utilizing tax incentives such as Historic Tax Credits (HTC) and River Edge Development Zone funds.
“HTCs have been a key tool for Rockford’s redevelopment efforts,” says Anderson. “Without that particular financial tool, almost nothing would have happened in this community. Recent studies have revealed that for every dollar the state invests in the Historic Tax Credit program, they get $10 back. And 25-30% is returned before the project is completed because of the income tax generated by the workers employed by the development. Everybody wins.”
The first step in applying for these funding sources and tax breaks is research to confirm the historical significance of a structure. One of the goals of the survey was to collect such information and create a Multiple Property Listing (MPL) form to help generate nominations for the National Register of Historic Places.
“The Multiple Property Listing is a common device used throughout the U.S.,” says Susan Benjamin, owner of Benjamin Historic Certification. “Basically, you create an umbrella form describing the significance of the type of buildings you want to list on the National Register. Then, you nominate individual buildings whose history, architecture and function fall under that umbrella.”
The buildings may be scattered around the community, but in the larger context of Rockford’s industrial history, they are part of a bigger whole which does qualify.
“If a building is listed on the National Register, it doesn’t make the owner do anything they don’t want to do,” says Anderson. “But if you want to use HTCs, there are guidelines to follow. We have found them to be reasonable, flexible and critical to the financial well-being of the project. These landmarks have proven that preservation can have a powerful economic impact on the community.”
Each volunteer was asked to research four to seven buildings. In addition to photographs, they filled data sheets with information regarding location, dimensions, age, style and current condition. The team then sought historical info about when each was built, who built it, what business first operated there, who now owns it, how it’s being used today, and what modifications have been made in the past. All of this was uploaded to a common database created by Elders.
“We were free to choose which buildings to research,” says Don Bissell, a project volunteer, retired tech publications manager and historic preservation activist. “I chose some buildings that had a personal connection to me – the first place I worked after college, another owned by some friends. A lot of my interactions with the buildings were at arm’s length, however, since I didn’t have access to the interiors or the property was fenced off.”
Volunteers were encouraged to seek historical information from several sources, including Midway Village Museum, Rockford Historical Society, Winnebago County Recorder’s office, and the Local History Room of the Rockford Public Library (RPL). Especially useful was RPL’s catalog of Sanborn maps, detailed and colorful hand-made building outlines made between the 1860s and 1927.
Created primarily for insurance companies, they included data about construction materials, datesof additions, fire protection issues and more. The maps were updated by literally cutting and pasting overlays as information changed. Current mapping and tax data was found at the Winnebago Geographic Information System (WGIS) website at wingis.org.
“What emerged from the data of individual buildings, however, was the need to tell the wider and unique story of Rockford’s industrial history,” recalls Anderson.
The survey identified multiple industries that significantly impacted Rockford and the nation with their innovations, inventions and development, including agriculture, knitting, textiles, furniture, seed and machine tools. It also identified multiple industrial leaders who created the direction and vision for the city to grow and prosper. A unique aspect of this vision was the interconnected network and cross-pollination of ideas among them from 1850 to 1930.
Water Power District
A key ingredient to Rockford’s early industrial growth was the creation of the Water Power District (WPD) in 1853 on the west bank of the Rock River. One of the first attempts to harness the power of the river was a crude dam constructed in 1845 near where the Jefferson Street bridge is today; it washed away in 1850.
A more substantial structure was built in 1853 and securely anchored to the rocky ford which gave the city its name. A mill race diverted some of the water from above the dam into a narrow channel in the west bank, which eventually emptied into Kent Creek to the south.
To take advantage of this source of power, industries located themselves along the race and diverted some of the water into smaller channels, where the flowing water turned paddle wheels or turbines. The turbines drove line shafts and equipment in the adjoining factories, usually connected by long leather belts. The water eventually flowed back into Kent Creek or the Rock River by means of channels called tails.
“There was a gate operated by hand which controlled the flow,” explains Bill Edmundson, retired manufacturing engineer and collector of WPD history. “But if the water level went up or down, the speed of the machinery did, too. Amos Woodward invented a device to regulate, or govern, the speed of the turbines. His company, eventually named Woodward Governor, built a factory in the WPD, which still stands today. The company moved to Loves Park in 1941.”
The boundaries of the Water Power District were South Main on the west, the Rock River on the east, the railroad (Galena, Chicago & Union at first) on the north, and Kent Creek on the south. More than 450 companies got their start in the WPD, and some are still there. At its peak, more than 1,300 workers were employed in the district’s foundries, job shops, machine shops, pump companies, and woodworking and model shops.
The area’s economical power source and the railroad’s ability to bring in raw materials and distribute finished products attracted a steady stream of inventive entrepreneurs who went on to found, lead and expand Rockford’s industries for decades. The area became a kind of industrial incubator, where cooperation rather than competition was the prevailing philosophy.
Local industrial icons like Ralph Emerson, Wait Talcott, Levin Faust, William Burson, John Nelson, F.H. Manny, P.A. Peterson, Howard Colman and William Ziock all got their start in the Water Power District.
“If you came up with an idea for a new product, [the business management] would help you set up your own shop to make that product,” explains Edmundson. “They helped each other.”
In addition to bringing in raw material, the railroads (there were four by 1901) also provided a steady stream of skilled immigrants to work in the factories. When steam power became available in 1867 and electricity came in 1892, many industries relocated or expanded out of the WPD. But they still managed to build their factories within walking distance or along interurban rail stops for the convenience of their employees.
“When the automobile arrived in the early 1900s, we threw that [concept] out of the window,” says Anderson.
As Rockford’s industries developed and expanded, their design elements and materials evolved as well. With an abundance of local timber, buildings were originally constructed of wooden post and beam, with wooden floor joists between, typically three to four stories high with a brick veneer. They were easily adaptable to mounting new equipment overhead, since no welding was required. Fire was a constant danger, and several companies disappeared in smoke and flames during the late 1800s.
Steel became the material of choice in the 1890s; it allowed for larger open floor plans without the interruption of wooden posts. Reinforced concrete came into frequent use at the turn of the century, making possible taller buildings and increased load-bearing capacity on each floor. The Woodward building in 1909 was the first completely concrete building erected in Rockford.
The Ziock building, whose first component was built in 1913, has withstood the passage of time and thoughts of demolition, and it was recently converted into the Embassy Suites Hotel in downtown Rockford. Huge interior circular columns that once held 13 floors of knitting machinery are now unique design elements in the decor of what has become a destination location for world travelers.
Early builders and designers of industrial factories had a greater appreciation for the use of daylight to make comfortable and efficient workplaces, especially when working on precision machinery or assembling detailed parts. Steel made walls of exterior glass feasible, and an innovative sawtooth roof design provided both light and ventilation to interior spaces.
The sawtooth roof utilized a series of vertical north-facing windows with a 35-degree sloped opaque roof to the south. The frosted glass let natural light enter the middle of the workplace floor without the solar heat.
“Today, such south-facing roof lines could easily be adapted to support solar panels for electricity,” notes Anderson. “It’s another example of the versatility of these old historic buildings, and how they can become a key to our future.”
The conductors of Rockford’s recent survey made several recommendations based on their findings and research. One was to make a Multiple Property Listing form for the National Register of Historic Places, and to nominate six industrial buildings under this form.
They include the Bartlett/Mack Paper building (502 Cedar St.); Chicago Northwestern Freight Depot (514 Church St.); Woodward building (220 Mill St.); Mott Brothers structures (907 and 917 S. Main St.); Nelson Knitting (909 S. Main St.); and the Railway Express building (315 S. Court St.).
As of now, the MPL form, the Bartlett/Mack building, and the Freight Depot nominations have been submitted for preliminary approval to the Illinois State Preservation Office, where their decisions are pending.
Further recommendations include a public education campaign to raise awareness of the need to redevelop and re-purpose historic buildings, using blogs, websites and a documentary (yet to be created). Also, a subsequent study of industrial buildings constructed between 1930 and 1985 might produce similar useful information.
According to Anderson, the report, which is 235 pages, has been presented to City of Rockford and Winnebago County officials, as well as other interested parties. Further copies can be obtained by contacting Studio GWA at 200 Prairie St., Rockford, IL 61107, or by calling (815) 963-1900.
“When you market something, you’ve got to have a story to tell to show its potential,” says Anderson. “Here’s the story.”
“The struggle to save historic industrial buildings from destruction is not just in Rockford; it’s everywhere,” says Benjamin. “We don’t want it to be a battle, but it frequently is. Look at what you see along the interstates: box after box of these faceless, one-story fulfillment warehouses. Wouldn’t it be nice if they put items to be distributed in an historic factory building instead?
“Rockford is a cool destination. I don’t like ‘Everywhere, USA,’” she adds. “Rockford has an identity, a sense of place, with interesting architecture. Next time I visit, I just want to hang out, drive around, look at things without a mission in mind.
“Build on that heritage, Rockford! Make it even more interesting for people who live there, for others who visit. Rockford is a cool place.”
The Lorden Building
Last October, one of the buildings in the survey, the Lorden Building at 330 S. Wyman St. and Founders’ Landing, was demolished to make way for improvements to Davis Park. Erected in 1916 by the B.Z.B. Knitting Company in the heart of what became known as the knitting district, the building changed ownership several times. Lorden Storage moved out in 1972. In recent years, it was used as an entertainment venue for outdoor concerts and films.