CARBONDALE — Old houses always have stories to tell, and there’s nothing like a little restoration work to get them talking.
At Hickory Lodge, the 1931 home on West Sycamore Street that currently serves as the administrative offices of the Carbondale Park District, traces of history aren’t hard to find.
Dave Nalley of the Carbondale Park District has been overseeing a restoration project at the lodge for the past year.
Nalley had previously heard rumors that the building was a Sears, Roebuck & Company kit house. Sears sold about 70,000 such homes via mail order between 1908 and 1940, and today they are prized by buyers of old homes for their sturdiness and quality materials.
Recently, he discovered proof of the home’s origins: some of the windows are stamped with Roman numerals.
“That pretty well confirms that it came in a kit — otherwise a carpenter wouldn’t stamp each one as he did it,” Nalley said.
Kathy Renfro, executive director of the Carbondale Park District, said the restoration process has been illuminating.
“Dave’s taught us so much about the house. Here we are, in it every day. And we love it here, don’t get me wrong, but it’s really helped us to appreciate it,” Renfro said.
The building was long overdue for some careful restoration, as previous work was mostly superficial, Renfro said.
“We had had it painted about 12 years ago, but through Dave’s exploration we realized that that’s exactly what had happened — it had been painted. No repair on the work,” Renfro said. “This go-around, it just needed a lot more love and attention.”
The home originally belonged to Thomas W. Martin, owner of Martin Oil Co., which operated service stations throughout the region. Martin also sponsored the successful Martin Oilers softball team.
Donated to the Carbondale Parks District in 1978, the Lodge also currently houses Keep Carbondale Beautiful, and a local artist rents one of the upstairs rooms as a studio.
The estate once extended all the way to Illinois 13 and boasted formal gardens and a reflecting pond.
“It was pretty magnificent in its initial construction,” Renfro said.
In the 1970s, the Park District built a solar greenhouse behind the home. The grounds also feature a grotto with a brick stage, where weddings and special events are held.
Nalley has been restoring some of the home’s deteriorated wood with Abatron, a wood consolidant often used for historic restorations. The material has been useful in repairing some of the home’s ornamental wood features, he said.
“Everything’s been scraped, washed, primed — all the windows have had to be re-glazed, and there’s a lot of windows,” Nalley said.
The sunroom alone has 88 windows; the front side of the house has 75.
Since he began working on the property, Nalley has noticed some of the home’s unique features. In the basement, there’s an innovative, 1930s-era irrigation system with timers.
“Nobody had home irrigation at that time,” Renfro said. “Pretty sophisticated, in its design and engineering.”
Nalley has also admired the home’s heating and cooling systems, which were likely energy-efficient for their time. The basement contains a massive fireplace, which probably heated much of the house and drew moisture out of the basement, Renfro said. On the roof, a cupola served as passive cooling.
“It’s got windows that were open, so I’m not sure if they opened those in the spring and closed them in the fall, but … what happens is when the wind blows across, it draws the hot air up out of the house, and they’re starting to use that (technique) more in homes today,” Nalley said.
The inside of the house is strikingly ornate, with crown molding and built-in cabinets. Upstairs, enormous windows overlook the sprawling front yard.
“My kids always wanted me to buy this house so they could live up here … they always thought it was like the brig from the Starship Enterprise,” Renfro said.
The house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.
“From our perspective, we hoped that would protect the house,” Renfro said. “People who maybe didn’t see it through the same eyes as we did might have wanted to make changes.”
Members of the Martin family still remember playing in the house as children, Renfro said.
“Their memories of the house, the little nooks and crannies and where they used to hide from their grandparents — there’s a rich history of family legacy in this home,” Renfro said.
Renfro said the lodge provides a comfortable, relaxed setting for Park District meetings.
“There’s no street noise, there’s kind of a sense of privacy here that I think just helps for communication when you’re trying to do some creative problem-solving. This seems to be a much different atmosphere than … some of the more institutionalized meeting rooms that so many of us are just accustomed to,” she said.