May 05, 2008

Preservation Summer plans for Cairo taking shape

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- At the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in southernmost Illinois stands a town known of far and wide. Much like its Egyptian namesake, the Little Egypt city of Cairo has a rich and storied history.

Southern Illinois University Carbondale is issuing an invitation to students and people throughout the region to truly experience the iconic riverfront community and work with its people to help revitalize the historic area. Preservation Summer 2008 is an upper-level historic preservation field study from SIUC's architecture school and history department, but any SIUC student can participate. Continuing Education students and "community listeners" are welcome too.

The eight-week interdisciplinary class begins at 6 p.m. June 9 in Room 120 of Quigley Hall. This course offers a unique chance to gain research and preservation field experience at a regionally and nationally significant historic locale, according to Robert H. Swenson, architect and associate architecture professor, who along with Michael C. Batinski, chair of the history department, is leading the program. This summer's class participants will work alongside students in SIUC's new School of Architecture master's program.

The University's history and architecture faculty will teach the class. They'll work with members of the Cairo Vision 20-20 Committee, continuing work on a property survey inventory begun last fall. They will focus on the Cairo Historic District, featured on the National Register of Historic Places, to determine exactly what historic properties and resources are there. Cairo boasts the Magnolia Mansion, the Cairo Library, the Custom House and much more. The class will analyze the data it collects within the historic district in conjunction with the ongoing effort to revitalize and re-establish Cairo's legacy.

"We're going to really do what we can in that historic district," Swenson said. In actuality, SIUC students and faculty have already been working for more than a year with local citizens in their effort to restore, reclaim, preserve and enhance Cairo.

Another facet of the summer class involves the community's "shotgun" style houses, so named according to legend because their long, narrow design, with one room directly behind another from front to back, meant one could fire a shotgun in the front door and see the shot emerge out the back door without striking a wall in between. Class participants will study the shotgun home vernacular and select one or more homes that will serve as the focal point for a Heritage Conservation Network Restoration Workshop in summer 2009. The network is a non-profit building conservation workshop organization. The project will be similar to the summer 2007 Kornthal Church Preservation Summer restoration project.

This year's Preservation Summer class, along with SIUC architecture faculty and Bill Black Jr. of Ray Black and Sons Construction in Paducah, Ky., will inspect some of the houses. They'll prepare brief historic structure reports detailing the condition of the homes, improvements possible via a summer workshop and the cost estimate of materials and labor. They'll select one or more homes, with the city or a non-profit group as owner, for next year's workshop site.

In a variety of ways, Preservation Summer participants will work hand in hand with the Cairo Vision 20-20 Committee, the Concerned Citizens for the Revitalization of Cairo, the Cairo Rotary Club and the Southernmost Illinois Delta Empowerment Zone (SIDEZ). It's a big, cohesive effort with benefits for all involved.

"We're here to assist and work in partnership with the region's people," Swenson said. "They're helping us educate our students and we're assisting them in making the most of what they have. We really do love this place, this SIU and southernmost Illinois."

Swenson, Batinski, anthropology assistant professor Roberto E. Barrios, former professor Rachel Malcolm-Ensor, the Egyptian Area on Aging, Elaine Jurkowski, associate professor in social work, and SIUC students with various majors, have been actively involved in the Alexander County community for some time. Likewise Jon Davey, architecture professor, plans one of his popular "Kid Architecture" workshops in Cairo June 30 to July 4, with assistance from Preservation Summer participants and Gene Burse, currently an architecture independent studies student in ARC350.

Swenson said the goal is expanding the community involvement to encompass more people of all ages. An investigation is now going on to determine the possibility of having a "Youth Build" initiative in conjunction with restoration of some of the shotgun houses so the structures can be used once again as residences or reused for some other purpose. The School of Journalism has an ongoing project in Cairo and the SIUC School of Music conducts Southern Illinois Music Festival concerts in the region annually. There's even talk of a possible future youth interdisciplinary effort through the SIUC Upward Bound program, led by K. Donnell Wilson, involving the music, architecture and history units at SIUC, according to Swenson. Meanwhile, the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute is hosting a public symposium May 8 at Cairo High School.

"The University is trying to help the people of this community, who while they've declined in population, continue to have a well-deserved sense of pride and who would like to see the city's historic past preserved and the community revitalized," Batinski said.

Swenson encourages students from across campus and all academic disciplines as well as Continuing Education students and community listeners to become a part of Preservation Summer. There's just a $25 fee to be a community listener.

"It's great when everyone works together," Swenson said. "It's an intergenerational thing that's really powerful."

For more information about Preservation Summer 2008, contact Swenson at 618/453-4772 (e-mail or Batinski at 618/453-4391 (e-mail To register for credit, contact Kim Taylor, academic adviser, at 618/453-1227. To sign up as a Continuing Education student or community listener, look online at http://www.dce.siu.educommunity/comm2.htm.