Sense of community inspired Delavan couple to work, live in downtown building.
Delavan is one of those rare locations in central Illinois prairie country — not en route to anywhere yet managing to age with vitality and grace.
No radical face lifts. No massive downtown redevelopment. The historic and the modern manage a genteel coexistence. One key to this dignified little prairie town is second story living space, a notion embraced by sculptor Morgan Elser.
The artist and her husband, John, have restored eight historic homes and built one in the past 19 years. When they moved into the second story space in their 1891 iron front building on Locust Street, they experienced a new sense of community.
Not only do they live in a historic building, but they walk around town much as early residents have since the city rose from the prairie in 1836. They walk to the grocery store, post office, bank, restaurants, city hall and library.
The couple lives in the last historic building on a block next to Heartland Bank.
Rather than lawns and sweeping flower beds, now they maintain a small cottage garden in the courtyard behind their building. They grill on a second-story balcony built off their bedroom. Their front door is up a staircase from the street.
The ground floor storefronts are now an art gallery where Morgan Elser hosts regular artist receptions. Next-door is Elser’s studio.
On the first Saturday of every month, from 2 to 8 p.m., receptions are held for regional artists featured in the Locust Street Art Gallery. Wine and hors d’oeuvres are served. Guests from throughout central Illinois mingle with artists and then often stroll up and down the historic streets of Delavan.
There is a guest suite behind the gallery for visiting artists, complete with a kitchenette and full bathroom.
Above the gallery and studio, the Elsers live in a spacious, 1,400-square-foot apartment and also rent two smaller upstairs apartments.
"This is unique . . . a different style of living. People are in the building with you," Elser said. "In a small community, living this way makes you feel involved and connected with everyone who works in the community. Plus, it’s more convenient. The grocery store is around the corner. The post office is down the alley."
Historically, the building was once occupied by many of the shops vital to small town living. Originally, it was a hardware store with second floor living space.
"This is the center of town. Everything was in here . . . clothing, fabric, pizza, restaurant, antique store," Elser said.
Her apartment has 10½-foot ceilings and 8-foot tall windows. The apartment has three bedrooms. One is converted into a large pantry lined with shelving to hold Elser’s extensive collection of antique glassware and silver plate.
Another large bedroom is converted into a TV room. The master bedroom has a French door opening to a balcony. The master bathroom, painted soft sage green, has twin pedestal sinks and a claw foot tub.
The couple had extra cellulose insulation blown in and custom storm windows made. The apartment is filled with Elser’s collections of landscape oils and antique mirrors.
The Elsers have lived in this space for eight years. There are about seven other historic buildings in Delavan with residential second story living and the city is marketing several remaining historic buildings yet to be restored.
Michael Davis, part-time president of the Economic Development Council in Delavan and full-time partner with IWIRC in Peoria, said, "We’ve got some empty buildings. This kind of building affords people the opportunity to have living space upstairs and retail or business below. A flat like Morgan’s would cost an astronomical amount in Chicago or Peoria. We can make it economical to live with this beautiful architecture and woodwork."
Davis called Delavan a progressive city that maintains its link with the past.
"Those rural communities that destroy their link with the past become ghost towns," he said. "One of our goals is to see our historic downtown buildings thrive with business on the street and living upstairs. Delavan is on the way to nowhere. You have to want to go to Delavan. That is our challenge."
The EDC hopes to attract more artists to the community. Davis said computer-based businesses would also be ideal prospects with offices on the street level and living space above.
Morgan Elser was born in southern Missouri and raised in central Illinois. Six years ago she made the transition from interior designer and wedding gown designer to sculptor. She has her bronze pieces cast at Art Casting of Illinois in Oregon, Ill.
She has a patent pending for a textile hardening process that gives cloth and other materials the look of bronze. In art and in homes, she likes to recycle and reuse.
She has done a series called nature embellished with pieces made of bark and treated to look like bronze. Her great grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee. Elser will be teaching an eight-week class at Lakeview Museum on American Indian tribal masks.
The ultimate recycler, Elser also has work made of dryer lint.
Her Web site can be accessed at www.MorganEart.com.
Clare Howard can be reached at (309) 686-3250 or email@example.com.