Remembering North Main Street

An Enthusiast's Tour of Old Houses
By: Sister Margaret Ann Willging OSF

On May 16. 2004 - as I began my first OLD HOUSE ENTHUSIAST' S TOUR- I was overcome by a severe attack of nostalgia. I deliberately chose to make this tour because three of these five homes and the neighboring environment "sparked off" memories of my early youth experiences. The dates of the building and existance of these homes coincided within the life span of my parents, Edgar (b.1879) and Anna Kerper Willging and my paternal grandparents Henry and Elizabeth Hanover Willging. I now invite you to join me as I walk along the nostalgic paths of my memory.

I first chose the Cunningham house on 175 W.l7th St. This building was begun as early as 1848 and was possibly completed by its fifth occupant, William Lawther before 1928. James Cushing, contemporary of my father - then a teen-ager - became the fourth occupant of this Cunningham home.

Cushing was a Dubuque ice baron and owner of the Northwest Vinegar Works on N. Main street. His son lived at 1752 N. Main on the hillside immediately north. A catwalk linked the two houses. If, using this catwalk - and in my imagination I did so - one could be spirited northward across the remainder of this hill, past the present Madison Park and enter the horne of my father, Edgar, his four siblings and his parents Henry and Elizabeth at 1940 N. Main. It has always puzzled this writer why my father's parental home address was and still remains N. Main street. I would understand this if the catwalk of the Cunningham home had been made available for pUblic use. Understandably, of course, this would have invaded the privacy of the owners at that time. So, today, to reach 1940 N. Main one must go up Madison Hill, zigzag to the right at its top and continue a few blocks eastward before descending N. Main hill. Oh we11 Solving puzzles promotes mental acuity!

Though reluctantly leaving the Cunningham home, the neighboring Jacobsen home recalled many memories to mind. The sixteen- room mansion at 195 W.l7th St, east of the foothill of Madison Hill, was built in the late l850s. It was added onto extensively and modified a number of times to arrive at this present whimsical Queen Ann appearance.Time after time when I passed the Jacobsen home as a child, I had wished some magic potent would fling open the doors of this "castle" and whisk me inside to marvel at the beautiful interior.

On May 16th this wish became reality. I was awestruck at what I saw: its formal dining room with coffered ceiling, its Steuben and Quezal fixtures and shades, its stained-glass windows, its fireplaces, and its carved staircase winding its way up to the tower. Charles Stampfer added the tower and turret. He was a prominent dry goods store owner and an early businessman. Our family made many-a-purchase at the wonderful Stampfer department store on 8th and Main streets. While, as a child. I was unable to enter the "castle interior", I was able to climb the Madison Hill staircase of my imaginary "fairy princess." I wondered if she used these stairs as a magic way to visit my grandparents at 1940 N. Main street. Perhaps she (?and her court) would picnic at the Madison park which she would have passed along the way. This outdoor staircase has an interesting metamorphic history.

Built first of wood in 1904, it was replaced by a magnificent concrete staircase in 1918 (-year of my birth). It then extended northward, exiting at Madison Park.

Midway an exit off a "plateau", permitted a private entry to the home of the-resident af that time. Recall, that the son of James Cushing lived here when the address was 1752 Main. and he entered it by way of the catwalk. Today, once again, a wooden staircase replaces the 1918 concrete staircase which played a significant role in my memories. Allow me to explain:

While I attended St. Mary's elementary grade school on White street, my brother, next in age would accompany me home after school hours. After diagonally crossing Jackson Park - occasionally pausing at the park pool finally arriving at the foot of Madison hill, we would take the parting-of-the-ways to reach our home at 579 Seminary street (now Clarke Drive). He would race up Madison hill while I would use my magic (concrete) carpet. More often than not, he awarded me the victory!

My father walked daily from our home, down Madison hill, continuing past the Jacobsen house onto Main street to his office in the Bank and Insurance (now Fischer) building. From age six on, I took this same route accompanied by my father, my mother Anna, or a brother. Later on I companioned my younger, my only sister.

The third of the houses - the Henderson house on 1433 Main street, had significance in the life of my father as a lawyer, and now, because of his story-telling, it took on significance for me. The architect, Fridolin Heer designed this house which was completed in 1874. My father was four years old when Colonel David B. Henderson - a Scottish immigrant - was elected to the House of Representatives. When Henderson was elected Speaker of the House during Teddy Roosevelt's presidency, my father may have been completing his study of law in preparation for passing the Bar exam. I would like to think that Henderson may have encouraged my father to pursue the field he chose.

This concludes the account of my nostalgic tour of the Cunningham, the Jacobsen, and the Henderson houses. However. a few peripheral associative anecdotes may be apropos.My father often spoke of his contemporar, the great architect Fridolin Heer. If my memory is reliable I recall my father giving Fridolin a Studebaker car-lift ( I was a child passenger. also) to his home near Fulton school on Central Avenue.

A second anecdote: Upon preparing myself for the Old House Enthusiasts tour. I observed in the folder given each visitor that drawings of all five homes of the tour were produced by the artist, Alan Ford. What a coincidence that I had met this artist on May 15 at the Dubuque Fest art exhibit in Washington Parkl I felt privileged to have been prepared also by observing this great artist's display of Dubuque buildings. The memory of this meeting and brief conversation heightened my anticipation of the May 16th tour.

A final conclusive anecdote: The foundress of the Franciscan Religious Order to which I belong, Mother Xavier Termehr, came from Germany with a small group of twenty-nine Sister-companions. first to Iowa City in 1875 and to Dubuque in 1878. She lived at St. Mary's Convent (now MARIA HOUSE) for a short time before establishing our first Motherhouse on Davis Avenue. The afore-mentioned Fridolin Heer planned this Motherhouse. It is not difficult to imagine that her small group would have met some of the same persons and shared many of the same experiences as did my parents: WHAT A THOUGHT!