Cairo Association of Teachers - Newsletter

CAT Tracks for December 3, 2007

From the Southeast Missourian...

Cairo works to revitalize history

By Sam Blackwell ~ Southeast Missourian

CAIRO, Ill. -- This community once envisioned to become a great Midwestern metropolis has suffered from an economic depression for at least half a century. But flickers of life have appeared recently. Biodiesel and coal gasification are two of the industries considering locating in Cairo. There's talk of relocating the airport to make room for other industries.

Another sign of life can be found in attempts to preserve Cairo's history. In a few weeks, construction is scheduled to begin on a design that will rehabilitate and expand the vacant tollhouse next to the Ohio River bridge into a museum that will reflect Cairo's Civil War and transportation history. The $1 million project is being funded through a variety of sources but primarily the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Earlier this year, Carbondale, Ill., businessman Geoffrey King stepped in and bought the First Christian Church to prevent the church and stained glass windows worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from being sold at auction. The small congregation had decided to disband but sold the building to King to keep it intact. He plans to offer the building for the use of not-for-profit groups and is working with the Cairo Vision 20/20 organization and urban design students at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. They are attempting to place the church on the National Register of Historic Places.

On Saturday, the urban design students held the first of three open houses to exchange information with Cairo residents about projects they are working on that could be used to help revitalize the city. The aim is to try to get people who live in Cairo involved in the projects and students involved in hands-on rehabilitation.

The students are focusing on six areas of the city:

* The Washington and Sycamore avenues corridor travelers see on their way through Cairo. "That's what everybody sees first and what's most depressing to people when they see Cairo," said Robert Swenson, who teaches the class.

* Waterfront/riverwalk/marina area. The town's waterfront is completely undeveloped, Swenson said. Private watercraft have no place to get fuel. The students are working on a proposal to build a marina.

* Midtown educational district. A proposal for SIU or Shawnee Community College to provide classes near the Custom House area.

* Core downtown area: "It needs serious revitalization," Swenson said.

* McBride public housing. Cairo needs new and rehabilitated housing to replace this project, which Swenson said is "not a happy place."

* Industrial development. Swenson said King is interested in starting a prefabricated housing industry. Sears-Roebuck housing kits were once produced in Cairo.

The 12 students also have been conducting a property inventory survey primarily intended to identify how much of the city's land is vacant, the condition of its business properties and valuable properties people may not be aware of.

Swenson, who is an architect, said these projects are meant to be more than academic exercises. The tollhouse museum actually evolved from an urban design class project that proposed establishing a national park at the confluence of the two rivers. Swenson still hopes to see that happen, but it will cost more than $10 million.

He said the architecture and history make Cairo unique. "It's probably iconic in the three-state region because it's at the confluence of the two rivers. It's always been a significant place."

Carbondale architect Thad Heckman has designed the tollhouse museum at Fort Defiance Park to include the 2,370-square foot original building, a 1,900-square foot addition, an 800-square foot observation deck and a river walk.

Bruce Davis has been involved in planning the tollhouse project for the past 4 1/2 years while working in the Office of Economic and Regional Development at SIU. He said the tollhouse originally was the office of the company that built the bridge over the Ohio River and bought the Mississippi River Bridge at the end of the 1930s. After the bridges were paid off, it housed a state police post and a restaurant. The building has been vacant for the past decade.

Davis said no Civil War artifacts will be housed in the museum initially, but it's a natural site for them because Gen. Ulysses S. Grant presided over the Union troops at Fort Defiance for six months. "When you think about it, there is no Civil War museum focusing strictly on the Western Theatre in the U.S.," Davis said.

The museum will complement other Cairo historical landmarks like the Custom House museum, Magnolia Manor, Riverlore and Stafford Memorial Library, Davis said.

The museum at city-owned Fort Defiance Park is scheduled for completion in mid-September, Davis said. He said a grant is pending with the National Scenic Byways Program to build a full-size replica of Fort Defiance at the park.