Historic Graham-Ginestra House: Honoring Immigrants of Southwest Rockford

On Rockford’s South Main Street, a THIS 19th-century architectural marvel showcases the rich tapestry of cultures that HAVE defined the city’s southwest side.

The Graham-Ginestra House, in Rockford, was constructed in 1857 for Freeman Graham Sr., who built the first sour mash distillery in Illinois and co-owned Rockford Cotton Mills. In 1927 it was sold to Leo Ginestra, who owned a mobile home park. Ginestra lived in the home until his death in 1978.

Nestled among the businesses on Rockford’s South Main Street corridor stands the Graham-Ginestra House at 1115 S. Main St. It serves as a testament to the city’s past and the immigrant groups that have populated Rockford’s southwest side.

A cornerstone of the Heritage Museum Park, the Graham-Ginestra House is a striking example of unique architecture and historical significance. The Ethnic Heritage Museum, adjacent to the house, completes the Heritage Museum Park campus.

Built in 1857 for businessman Freeman Graham Sr. and his family, the house remained in the Graham family until 1926, when it was sold to Leo and Mary Ginestra. After Leo and Mary died in the 1970s, their daughter, Therese Ginestra Schmeltzer, inherited the home. Through Schmeltzer’s efforts to protect the home’s historical and architectural importance, the Graham-Ginestra House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

“There are several aspects of the house that make it architecturally and historically noteworthy,” says Jocelyn McLaughlin, president of Heritage Museum Park. “The house was designed in a Greek Revival, Italianate architectural style and built with Galena dolomite limestone, which insulated the structure, making it warm in the winter and cool in the summer.”

“The interior architecture reveals a lot of beauty and intricacy with murals, inlaid wood floors, stained glass and a curved cantilevered staircase, which is the focal point of the front room,” she adds. “The home was built with many updated amenities for that time, including gas heating through copper pipes.”

The Graham-Ginestra House’s architectural and historical brilliance established it as a focal point along South Main Street.

“During the late 19th century, the neighborhood surrounding the home took on a more ethnic focus,” McLaughlin says. “The Ginestra family embraced their Italian heritage and influenced the population of their neighborhood, to where the South Main Street corridor became a cultural center for Italians living in Rockford.”

For more than 40 years, the Graham-Ginestra House has been open to the public as a museum. Events held through the years have included a pear festival, English and Italian Christmas displays, and a feature on Victorian funerals and mourning customs. Additionally, several garden clubs have met on the grounds.

More recently, the property around the Graham-Ginestra House has been redeveloped to reflect several ethnic groups with ties to the southwest side. A storefront and home on the corner of Loomis Street and South Main, built in the 1890s, was one of the first Mexican grocery stores in the neighborhood. It now houses the Ethnic Heritage Museum.

“The house was remodeled in the 1980s and again in 2012 to create the museum, with the six original rooms representing the six main ethnic groups – African-American, Hispanic, Italian, Irish, Lithuanian and Polish – who settled in southwest Rockford,” says McLaughlin.

“Historically, there were several periods of immigration into the southwest side,” she adds.

“African-American immigrants arrived in waves from the 1800s to the early 1900s. The Irish came with the construction of railroads in the 1850s. Then, from the late 1890s to the 1920s the Italians arrived, followed by Hispanics during the 1910s, the 1920s and the 1940s. Polish and Lithuanian immigrants arrived mostly after World War II.”

The six galleries in the Ethnic Heritage Museum feature displays that change quarterly with various seasonal and ethnic themes.

“In the African-American gallery, there is a tribute to James “Big Jim” Wright, a three-time Grammy Award-winning musician from Rockford who passed away in 2018,” McLaughlin says.

“The Hispanic gallery has an altar for Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) along with displays from local families on the early Mexican settlers of south Rockford,” adds McLaughlin. “The Italian gallery tells the real story of Pinocchio and his original creator.”

The Ginestra siblings: (clockwise, from back left) Sam, Frank and Leo Ginestra, Theresa Arbisi, Mary Abruzzo and Marie Ingrassia.

Saints from Ireland and details on sheep farming and textiles from the Aran Islands appear in the Irish gallery. The Lithuanian gallery features amber jewelry and handcrafted wood carpentry, while the Polish gallery is set up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Polish language school at St. Stanislaus Church.

“While the Graham-Ginestra House and Ethnic Heritage Museum showcase the unique differences and traditions of the immigrant groups who settled southwest Rockford, the Heritage Museum Park complex also highlights the similarities among these varied cultures,” McLaughlin says. “Our families all have a history, and when we learn about the history of our families, it helps develop a sense of community, civic and cultural pride for our entire city.”

A Personal Connection to the Graham-Ginestra House
While most of Rockford knows the historic Graham-Ginestra House as the anchor of the Heritage Museum Park, it is simply Uncle Leo’s and Aunt Mary’s house to me. Growing up in 1970s Rockford, my maternal grandparents, Dominick and Theresa (Ginestra) Arbisi, often took my sister and me to “visit the relatives.” A favorite stop on these trips was to see Uncle Leo and Aunt Mary Ginestra, my grandmother’s older brother and sister-in-law.

I remember sitting on an especially springy sofa in their beautiful living room, my legs dangling as I marveled at the colorful stained-glass window above the ornate curved staircase. Tempting as it was to bounce around on the sofa or think of sliding down the winding banister, I knew good behavior at Uncle Leo’s and Aunt Mary’s was always rewarded by a plate of chavelli cookies. These light and crispy almond-flavored delicacies were Aunt Mary’s specialty and always worth the effort to behave.

My childhood memories of Uncle Leo and Aunt Mary Ginestra’s home are merely a small chapter in the larger story of this family’s immigration and resettlement in Rockford’s southwest side.

Leo Ginestra’s father, my great-grandfather Audenzio Ginestra, emigrated to the United States from Sicily in 1892 and found work as a stable boy for Wells Fargo in Chicago. In 1898, Audenzio had saved enough money to bring his wife, Teresa, and young son, Leo, to America. During the early 1900s, Audenzio and Teresa added to their family with the births of Frank, Mary, Theresa, Marie and Sam.

Around 1920, Leo, now married to Mary, became concerned with the safety of his family’s Chicago neighborhood. According to family lore, Leo took it upon himself to secure housing and a better job for himself and his father in Rockford. Upon returning from work one day, Audenzio found Leo had packed up the entire clan. Great-grandpa had no choice but to join his family and resettle in Rockford.

Between 1920 and 1926, Leo worked hard to establish himself as a respected businessman in Rockford’s southwest side, an area with a large Italian-American population. He purchased property along the up-and-coming South Main Street corridor and opened an auto repair business.

My grandfather, Dominick, another young, enterprising Italian-American businessman, owned Forest City Produce and brought his trucks to Leo’s garage for servicing. The two men became friends and Leo introduced Dominick to his sister, Theresa. As was the custom of the time, Leo and Mary acted as chaperones during my grandparents’ courtship.

Dominick and Theresa were married in 1923 and in 1926, Leo and Mary purchased a home at 1115 S. Main St., the Graham-Ginestra House. As they say, the rest is history.