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Oliver: What’s old can be new with creativity, vision

Published: Tuesday, March 18, 2014 11:25 p.m. CST • Updated: Tuesday, April 8, 2014 12:15 p.m. CST

Can history be preserved while encouraging new uses for old spaces?

That’s the question before the city of Woodstock as it tries to determine the next chapter for the Old Courthouse on the Square.

The building, which was opened in 1858, was used by the county until the 1970s, when county government was moved to Route 47 and Ware Road. The structure then was sold to private investors.

It was designed by famed architect John Mills Van Osdel, who also is responsible for Rush Medical Center and The Palmer House in Chicago.

In January, the city, which now owns the property, put out a request for proposals, asking potential buyers to include budget and restoration plans for the site.

The idea is to maintain as much of the character of the building as is possible.

I started thinking about the Old Courthouse again after I toured the Starline Factory in Harvard for a recent article.

If you haven’t had a chance to see the things owner Orrin Kinney has been able to do with that old building, you really should go out there.

The Starline, which was built in the 1880s by Henry L. Ferris and business partners Charles E. Hunt and Nathan B. Helm, began as a manufacturing facility for farm equipment and the like.

Kinney bought the 278,000-square-foot building at auction in the 1990s. The roof had caved in, and it was in desperate need of repairs.

Little by little, though, the place has been transformed. 

Of course, a little serendipity along the way hasn’t hurt, either.

The space now hosts wedding and events, something that wasn’t in the original plans.

That changed, however, when the great-great-granddaughter of the Starline’s founder, Henry Ferris, approached Kinney about having her wedding at the building in 2010.

Kinney and his crew went to work to make that happen, and the work went down to the wire, Kinney told me.

“That night, when I walked in and took a look at the wedding, I was blown away,” Kinney said.

And no doubt even more brides since then have said the same thing about the Starline and the Ferris Room, which can accommodate 500 guests.

The Starline also has become an arts destination, hosting Fourth Friday events, as well as the annual Art of the Land fundraiser for The Land Conservancy of McHenry County. It also is home to artist studios and small offices.

A lot of vision and a little luck has turned Harvard history into something vibrant for the future.

Crystal Lake knows all about that, too. Remember the drive in 2002 that led to the purchase of the Dole Mansion?

Today, the Lakeside Legacy Arts Park also is a destination for the arts, with events such as First Fridays and concerts in The Listening Room. The park is home to artist studios, too.

Is that the course the Old Courthouse will take? That’s a question for the new owners to answer. For now, the possibilities are endless. 

Creativity and a desire to preserve the past has worked before in McHenry County.

I certainly hope it can again.

• Joan Oliver is the former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at

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