July 30, 2008

Meeting set on Cairo revitalization efforts

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Throughout the summer, Southern Illinois University Carbondale architecture and history students and participants from Cairo and the region were busy with architectural and cultural history research in Cairo. They’ll unveil the results of their labors during a meeting at 2 p.m. Friday, Aug. 1, at the Cairo Public Library. The public is welcome to attend and see what’s happened in the “Preservation Summer 2008-Cairo Project.”

In addition, three students from SIUC’s new Master of Architecture program will present design proposals for prefabricated and modular housing compatible with the southernmost Illinois region at 1 p.m.

A group of 10 architecture and history students and Community Listeners from Cairo and the region have been part of the ongoing efforts to revitalize the community, located at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Robert H. Swenson, architect and associate architecture professor, and Michael C. Batinski, chair of the history department, are leaders for the summer project. The Cairo Vision 20-20 Committee facilitated the project.

Participants have actually been working along several avenues, all with the same goal in mind -- working with Cairo residents to revitalize the historic community. Friday’s meeting will include discussion of the many previous plans and proposals for restoring Cairo. The Cairo Public Library has a sizeable collection of documents representing various projects that professionals, academics and others created as long ago as the 1950s. Some of the current project participants have reviewed these plans, analyzed what went wrong, and determined what lessons can be learned to assure current and future efforts are more successful.

Some of the class participants visited and photographed all of the more than 90 property addresses featured on the original 1977 National Historic District nomination form and determined if the structures listed then still exist and if so, their current condition. They also developed a list of current structures within the original historic district boundaries that are now possibly eligible for addition to the list. This work will continue and be utilized by students in one section of the fall SIUC 2008 Urban Design Studio class, along with data collected by the Vision 20-20 Committee and the urban design students from the fall 2007 class.

Urban design studio classes will also focus this fall on the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans and downtown Memphis, Tenn., with visits to all three locales.

This summer’s Cairo work also included preparations for a summer 2009 Heritage Conservation Network shotgun house preservation workshop. Participants investigated several of the long, narrow, cottage houses and selected two with the most potential to serve as workshop sites. Site assessments including measuring, photographing, compiling the family and architectural history of the houses and more is under way. Bill Black Jr., a preservation contractor and specialist from Paducah, Ky., led one of the Heritage workshops involving SIUC students and others from around the world in 2007 and will lead again in 2009.

Swenson said it’s been a productive and enjoyable summer in Cairo.

“Something amazing seems to happen every time we are in Cairo,” Swenson said, noting members of the group interviewed a local resident, well past the century mark, and recorded her memories and tales of the community she’s lived in since the 1940s.