Nomination of the Franks House as a Champaign Landmark
City of Champaign Plan Commission
102 N. Neil St.
Champaign, IL 61820
April 3, 1998
Re: Nomination of the Franks House as a Champaign Landmark
Dear Members of the Plan Commission:
My name is Mary Lee Sargent, and I am writing to request that you approve the nomination of the Franks House as a Champaign Landmark. I reside at 1010 W. Healey St. in Champaign and have been a Professor of History and Women's Studies at Parkland College for thirty-one years. I am also, currently, the Director of the Office of Women's Programs and Services at the college. The position laid out in this letter of support is informed by my profession as a teacher and scholar in the area of U.S. social and cultural history. I want to give three reasons why I favor the nomination of the Franks House and ask that the Plan Commission consider these reasons when making its recommendation to the City Council. First, I have lived in Champaign for almost thirty-four years. While I love the city and find it a wonderful place to live, I have been dismayed at the paucity of historical landmarks and sites which have been preserved here. Until relatively recently, there seems to have been a lack of consciousness and commitment on the part of elected and appointed civic leaders to preserving our local heritage. I have witnessed dozens of structures and sites that may have historical significance fall into ruin or be demolished (e.g. First Baptist Church at Randolph and University; the flatiron building at Main and Neil) or fall from public use into private hands (the Burnham Public Library on Church St. and the Wilbur Mansion on University Ave.). I have also heard hair-raising tales of an attempt by local merchants in the late 1950's or early 1960's to make a part of Westside Park into a parking lot. Because of all that we have lost which can never be regained, I believe that we must be especially vigilant to save whatever remains of our community's architectural and cultural heritage. We need to err on the side of caution and preservation. We need to be liberal about granting Landmark status and conservative about losing anything that is historically important. far too much already.
Secondly, I think the Plan Commission and the City Council should determine which persons are historically important and what structures are historically significant and, therefore, worthy of Landmark designation, on the basis of contemporary historical theory and practice and not on the basis of past and obsolete practice. World War II, the GI Bill, the Civil Rights movement, the women's and labor movements in the years since 1945 have caused a revolution in historical teaching and scholarship. These events and movements have helped to create a major field of historical study - social history. Social history has, in turn, transformed every other field of history - military, political, diplomatic, economic, intellectual and cultural history. What the social history movement and field has done is to turn history on its head or upside down. Suddenly, ordinary people, both men and women, have become the subjects of the historical conversation, the object of serious research and study. Ordinary people have become as important to know about and to understand as powerful leaders, public figures, the celebrated and the wealthy who had previously been the primary objects of historical investigation.
In a very real sense, historical thinking and understanding underwent a non-violent democratic revolution. As a result of this revolution, a professional elite of university-trained historians began to recognize what many people had known all along. And that is that communities, states, nations, economies, art, culture, ideas are created by all of the people and not simply by the people who rise to powerful positions, are public figures or amass great wealth. Historians became open to the possibility that a University of Illinois gardener, a middle-class entrepeneur in the nursery business, a choir director, a park commissioner involved in laying out two city parks like Mr. Franks may have contributed significantly to the community. He may have been as important as someone who made lots of money, was mayor or President of the University of Illinois, or managed to get elected to state or national office. It is important for our children, for future generations, to know about this person and people like him. This is especially true given that Champaign's parks and open spaces are a large part of what makes Champaign beautiful and livable.
A second revolution in historical thinking and practice growing directly out of the first is the current emphasis in historical writing and teaching on multiculturalism. Multicultural social history not only focuses on the lives and accomplishments of ordinary people but on ordinary people of every class, ethnicity, race, ability, gender, cultural heritage and vocation. The last four or five American history texts that I have used reflect the centrality of multicultural history. Half of the content or more is about the ordinary people who have built communities (including the great houses that are likely to get saved as important local landmarks), fought wars, drained soggy lands like those in Champaign County, farmed, and worked in the mines, mills, factories, foundries, shops and stores of towns like Champaign.
Finally, I want to address the importance of the house/structure itself. It is important that our children and we ourselves see and interpret artifacts, including houses, that were a part of the lives of middle class, working class, and poor people of the past. We must do this in order to have an accurate, real and deep grasp of historical reality. The current structure is unusual in that it is a pre-19OQ house that is mostly intact, unchanged, and retains its architectural integrity. A major portion of the home was built in 1872, just twelve years after the town was incorporated. Also the house was part of a long established local business, a part of the economic and business history of our community.
I appreciate your attention to this letter and hope that you will recommend that the City Council designate the Franks House a Champaign Landmark.
Mary Lee Sargent