For all of my adult life, I have had recurring dreams about this house. Take a good, long look at it: the singular Italianate architecture, the prominent Widow’s Walk that tops the roof. It’s just the kind of house that would produce the sort of wonder and amazement that are the building blocks for our dreams.
I’m sure I’m not alone. I would bet good money that this house is impressed into the consciousness of most folks who grew up in Champaign-Urbana.
My dreams were always about the interior of the house. What does a house that looks like that on the outside look like inside? And who are the people, past and present, who inhabit it? Is it beautiful? Is it haunted? This was the stuff of my dreams.
So in my waking life, I soaked up any information about it like a sponge.
In my early adult years, the house was owned by John Solon, a lawyer from a prominent and pioneering local landowning family, who owned acres and acres of land within C-U’s city limits. He was born in 1903, just two years before his parents, Francis and Abbie Solon, bought the house. They were the second owners; the Harwood family bought it after its construction in 1867.
I never met John Solon, but I heard a lot about him. That he walked everywhere (and really, if you live in that house, you probably could just walk everywhere you needed to go). That he did his walking in the grass, and not on the sidewalk, so that he didn’t wear out his shoes. That he resisted, tooth and nail, all attempts to buy his various property and land holdings. That he didn’t want the Champaign of the future to have a populous, urban center, but rather a sprawling, wide growth-pattern. And accordingly, he sat on his properties. Let buildings at its center languish, unoccupied, for decades.
But still, I thought, clinging to the analogy of his shoes, I bet he has a fantastic family home. I bet he goes to the ends of the earth to keep it pristine. And my dreams of its magnificent interior continued.
After Solon’s death in 1995, the house was donated by his heirs to the Preservation And Conservation Association (PACA), a local organization committed to the preservation of historical houses and buildings of the area. It was a wonderful and important gift that carried with it some terrible news: the interior of this house was positively ravaged by time and neglect. And that the City of Champaign had, in fact, evicted Solon from the house years before his death due to the uninhabitable state of it.
PACA devoted years of their time and resources to stabilizing the house in order to make it renovation-worthy. And finally, they posted pictures of the interior. My heart dropped to the floor when faced with these images that I’d been dying to see for nearly two decades. It looked nothing at all like the lush interior of my dreams. Crooked, dull wood floors, boarded windows and peeling, antiquated wallpaper.
And now that it’s for sale to the public for the first time in more than 100 years, I always pause on its picture when scrolling through the listings, wishing that I could turn the clock back on this house, to the point in which you might find a gleaming wood floor and a pair of rocking chairs on the front porch, where kids might be playing in the front lawn and the smell of dinner cooking on the stove permeates its inside. A time in which it was alive and full of life, so that it might have the chance to be so again.
And it can secure a place in the dreams of our future generations, too.
Erin Nieto has lived in Champaign-Urbana for nearly all of her life. In addition to looking for the perfect house and being a busy mom of two, she has published her first book, “How Much Do You Weigh?” (howmuchdoyouweigh.tumblr.com