May 15, 2009

Sign-up under way for Preservation Summer 2009

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Where the Ohio and Mississippi rivers meet sits Cairo, a community steeped in a rich and storied history. A spotlight on the city, its history, and its future is bringing together history and architecture students and faculty from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, preservationists and community members for a unique project.

Preservation Summer 2009 is a collaboration between the architecture school and the history department at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. The undertaking serves as a hands-on restoration workshop for architecture students and a research and preservation project for history students. The focus is on a pair of shotgun houses in Cairo and on the history of Cairo, particularly its African American community in the 19th century.

“Saving Southern Illinois small towns through restoration, revitalization and redesign is vital for the success of local communities and citizens,” said Rachel Malcolm Ensor, history department lecturer. “At one time, small towns like Cairo, Metropolis and Brookport were microcosms of American life and home to ethnically diverse groups of people. They were aflutter with commercial and domestic activities, people creating the American dream, goods being manufactured and shipped throughout the United States via the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. While Southern Illinois has fallen on some hard times, the stamina and energy of those early pioneers still resides in history. Their stories are more interesting than the hottest novel on the ‘New York Times’ bestseller list. We need to save their legacy, the small towns in Southern Illinois, for future families to enjoy and study.”

The city of Cairo owns the houses. But the SIUC group is working with the Heritage Conservation Network to preserve and rehabilitate them as part of a movement to provide affordable family housing while preserving an important element of the city’s history. About 350 properties in Cairo, including these homes, are already included on or are eligible for placement on the National Register of Historic Places. Plans call for selling one house and using the other as headquarters for future restoration and preservation efforts, Ensor said.

“In eight years of Preservation Summer, this is only the second time we have had the opportunity to work side by side with members of a southernmost Illinois community and the Heritage Conservation Network to learn, share and apply hands-on preservation skills on an actual project,” said Robert H. Swenson, associate professor and architect from the School of Architecture. “We worked on the Kornthal parsonage project in 2007 and this summer, it’s the two historic shotgun-style houses in the city of Cairo. This project is important in that our students learn more than history and preservation skills. They also develop long-term relationships by realizing how important community history is to residents of a community. And, the community also receives something of value in return.”

Once a thriving riverfront town, Cairo was headquarters for General Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War, a hub for steamboat traffic, home to acclaimed blues musicians, seat of considerable civil rights activity and much more before the economic downturn hit hard in the last half-century or so. The Cairo VISION 20-20 Committee formed to turn things around and faculty and students from SIUC have offered considerable help and support in recent years.

The popular Preservation Summer course immerses students in history and architecture, bringing to life what they’ve learned in the classroom with a unique, hands-on learning experience. Participants will actually be restoring the shotgun houses, so named because of their narrow design where one could allegedly fire a gun through the front door and see it emerge out the back untouched. There will also be historical research, documenting the history of the black community and life in the region from 1820 to 1890. Participants will create an exhibit and possibly publish their research later, according to Ensor.

The class and the Heritage Conservation Network project are also open to students with other majors and community listeners. More participants are welcome, Ensor and Swenson said. In addition, the group desperately needs donations and resources, they said. They welcome monetary donations, construction materials, tools and equipment as well as food, bottled water and other supplies. Ensor said it’s a great opportunity to assist students in a valuable learning experience while helping a community help itself.

For more information about Preservation Summer 2009 or contributing in one way or another, contact Swenson at 618/453-4772 (e-mail, Ensor at 618/453-7862 (e-mail or Michael Batinski, professor emeritus and former history department chair via e-mail at To register for credit, contact academic advisers Jonathon Wiesen in the history department at 618/453-7873 or Kim Taylor in the architecture school at 618/453-1227. To register as a continuing educator or community listener, look online at

Bill Black Jr., of Ray Black and Sons Construction in Paducah, is conservator for the Heritage Conservation Network’s “Saving Shotguns -- Aiming for a Bright Future” June 7-20. For more information, see Participants in Preservation Summer 2009 will work hand in hand with the workshop group.