Gallery for Sterling, IL
The far west end of 3rd Street in the not-so-small town of Sterling, Illinois, is home to one of the more startling concentrations of Victorian mansions I have come across.  Nine of the ten houses featured in this gallery are within about three blocks of each other, all on the same street.  Normally, it is only individual homes which survive the ravages of the 20 th century; it is most unusual to find an entire Victorian street still extant.  So, I have given 3rd Street its own small gallery.

Sterling is an old one-industry town which, once upon a time, had a patriarch.  Washington Dillon founded a steel works there in the 1850's, and over the next half-century both the steel works and the town of Sterling grew steadily, along with the Dillon family fortune.  In due course, various members of the Dillon family built imposing Victorian mansions along the same stretch of 3rd Street – directly opposite the steel mill – and one can only imagine the sight this must have presented in 1910.

{Sweeping, cinematic, black-and-white image from an Orson Wells movie:  long shot of tall brick chimneys and black smoke.  Workers in overalls are filing into the steel works as a small girl dressed in an expensive frock, and watched over by a uniformed nanny, plays with a ball in front of a Victorian mansion.  The mansion is one in a line that commandingly set almost beside the steel works, just beyond a railway cut, so close that the little girl can hear the distant roaring of the furnaces.  She picks up her ball, and runs back to her nanny.}

OK, that's just a romantic notion on my part, but you get the general idea.  The steel works are still there, surprisingly, and they did a booming business until the late 1990's.  Most of the plant is idle these days, though I gather there is hope that some of it might be reopened someday.

But in any case the mill has corporate ownership now, and the Dillon family no longer owns any of the houses pictured here.  One (the oldest) is now a museum, one is a nightclub, one is a wedding boutique, two still have private owners, and the remaining five are vacant wrecks.  I should probably mention that the modern town of Sterling also has its fair share of well-maintained (modern) houses; but these faded beauties on her once-millionaire's row are the ones that excite me.

ST01 – Tuscan Italianate
This Italianate villa was built in 1857 by Colonel Edward Kirk.  It was purchased by Washington Dillon in 1882 and subsequently enlarged.  His son, Paul Dillon, was born in the house in 1883 and lived in it until 1980, when it was donated to the Sterling Park District.  The house is open to the public (call 815-622-6202 for more information).  A 1929 Baldwin locomotive, along with a caboose, are parked on the property and are also part of the museum.  This house is different from the others in this gallery, in that it is not built at the far west end of 3rd Street, overlooking the steel works.  It is about two miles away, on the east side of town – although it does overlook the rail line that (still) services the mill.  The house contains a number of antiques donated by the Dillon family.

ST02 – Italianate
This is one of the two former Dillon houses that are still private residences.  The owner happened to be in the front yard when I was walking down the street taking photos, and he waved me over when he saw what I was doing.  He was hopeful that I was an interested buyer, looking to turn one of his wrecked Victorian neighbors into a renovated beauty – but alas, I had to tell him that I thought the three-hour commute from Sterling to Chicago would be a tad too long.  He told me that several of the former Dillon houses were for sale Real Cheap, but it has been four years since I saw him, so it is hard to say whether they are still on the market or not.

ST03 – Italianate
There seemed to be some work proceeding on this house when I saw it.  There were two men clearing debris from the interior, and some of the brickwork and woodwork appears to be newly stripped.  The glassed-in porch or conservatory in the center of the photo is obviously not original to the house, so if there is a renovation underway, I certainly hope this former "improvement" is demolished.

ST04 – American Foursquare
This house is by far the newest of the steel-mill mansions, probably built a few years after the turn of the century.  It is actually closer in style to an American Foursquare (a stolidly pragmatic design popular from about 1905 to the mid-twenties) than it is to late-period Victoriana.  The house is now used as a bar and a nightclub.

ST05 – Italianate
This house, in various ways, appears to me to have once been the most elegant and most expensive of the former Dillon mansions.  Now, it is a vacant and derelict wreck.  The cornice does appear to have recently been stripped, however, so perhaps someone is beginning work on renovating it.  We can always hope.  This place would be a real stunner, if it were ever returned to the way it was.

ST06 – Tuscan Italianate
This splendid Italianate villa is easily the best preserved (on the exterior, at least) of all the Sterling mansions.  It is now in use as a wedding boutique.  The house is surrounded by trees, so this rather looming perspective was the best view I could manage.  However, given that the fabulous detail on its cornice is undoubtedly the architectural highlight of this house, maybe a looming close-up is better than a distance shot, anyway.  Some interior photos of the house can be found here.

ST07 – Italianate
Not much to say about this one, except I bet you could buy it cheap.  There are no broken windows or open doors in this house, however, and even some screens up here and there, which leads me to think that it may have been occupied until relatively recently.  The house looks to have been partitioned into rental units long ago.

ST08 – Italianate
Not much to say about this one, either, except that I bet you could buy it cheap.  The asphalt shingles on the porch look to be maybe 10 years old (plus, it still has a porch), and the blue paint on the window surrounds is roughly of the same vintage, so it seems probable the house was still in use as late as the 1980's – but I wouldn't bet any money that it looked much better then than it does now.  I think the hey-day of this house was a long, long time ago.

ST09 – Tuscan Italianate
This spooky, New-Orleans-looking Italianate appears to be a ruin, but the owner of house ST02 (his house is next door) tells me that it was occupied by an elderly lady up until only about six years ago, and the interior is not in such terrible condition.  If anyone out there is interested in buying and renovating one of the Sterling Victorians, this house might be your best bet.

ST10 – Italianate
This house is still in use as a private residence.  It seemed only proper to me that the last house in this gallery should be one that hasn't (yet) been left abandoned and derelict.



Contact me by e-mail at: David Taylor

All photos in this web site (except as specifically designated) are copyright 1997 and 2001 by David Taylor.  Permission to use them for one-time private or educational use is granted.  All commercial use without permission is prohibited.

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