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Summers: A modest proposal for Harvard's Coventry House

To enforce or not to enforce? That is the question.

I speak of the seeming reluctance of the McHenry County Board to employ the provisions of its Historic Preservation Ordinance and, at the very least, order repairs to the Coventry House and Barn in Harvard. The fact that these buildings were listed in Landmark Illinois’ 2015 Most Endangered Historic Places in the entire state demonstrates the critical importance of these unique 1850s-era structures.

Coventry, which is located on the far southwestern corner of the long-shuttered (since 2003) Motorola campus, fronts busy Route 14 on the north side of town.

The McHenry County Historic Preservation Commission has determined that the house and barn are in desperate need of repairs. And the county ordinance can compel the owners to make those repairs.

So why is the county slow-walking action on Coventry? It is, it seems, because our officials (earnestly hoping that something finally might be done with Motorola) don’t dare annoy or provoke or anger the newest owners of the campus.

Let’s stop the timidity. In fact, let’s drop the whole idea of meekly asking for repairs to Coventry (if we dare ask at all) and move instead to something bolder: acquisition, restoration and expansion.

The time has come to secure these treasures for public use. The time has come for the city of Harvard (in conjunction with the county, perhaps) to take title to the Coventry House and Barn.

We should approach the new owners of the campus cordially and seek to act cooperatively. The first line of inquiry would be to see if the owners might consider donating the house and barn to Harvard as a goodwill gesture.

The dilapidated buildings have absolutely no bearing on the site’s manufacturing functions. And under properly structured terms, the owners might get a tax write off for the gift.

The second possibility would be to see if the owners might sell the property – at a discount, perhaps, as a different demonstration of goodwill.

If the owners are not receptive to that, then perhaps the structures can be purchased for full market value.

If discussions break down (or do not even materialize), and the new owners still are reticent to sell – then Harvard should exercise its eminent domain powers in order to purchase the site.

To be clear: acquisition of Coventry should most emphatically not be merely for the sake of historic preservation. We must put the site to work.

Once restored, the house can become a community center. It also can contain a welcoming kiosk for visitors. In particular, the barn can become the focus for pioneer-era farming demonstrations. And yes – it will help Harvard with economic development.

I know from personal observations spanning nearly four decades that during the summer months – weekends in particular – thousands of cars stream through Harvard. Many of them are traveling to and from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Hardly any of them stop.

Two historic buildings and a robust pioneer farm situated on busy Route 14 would cause a number of people in those cars to pause – and then to stay awhile, absorbed in living history.

Perhaps they will tell families and friends of their experiences, and encourage them to visit.

Ultimately, Coventry’s development should extend to construction of a uniquely themed restaurant featuring frontier-era fare. Adjacent crafts and antiques and gift shops (and, perhaps, even an old-style general store) would, together, generate economic synergy. The outstanding artists with studios in Harvard’s brilliantly rejuvenated Starline plant also should have a prominent space in which to exhibit and sell their work.

In short: Let us wait no longer. Let’s take charge. Let’s turn the historic Coventry homestead into a place of civic pride – and, in the process, create a sterling example of how a resilient community can generate its own splendid success. 

• By way of gubernatorial appointment and state Senate confirmation, Scott Summers has served since 2013 as the public guardian and public administrator of McHenry County. He was elected earlier this year to the McHenry County Regional Board of School Trustees. Summers also is a former McHenry County College trustee. An attorney, he has authored two books published by the American Bar Association. Summers and his wife have lived in rural Harvard since 1978.

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