Driving past the mansion at 411 College Ave. in DeKalb,
people will notice the distinctive architecture, a Greek Classical
Revival style, but probably dont realize it was built by
barbed wire baron Issac Ellwood as an enticement to get John
Williston Cook to become Northern Illinois Universitys
first president in 1900.
The massive wooden columns out front make it resemble a
Greek or Roman temple, according to a description
in the book Landmarks of the Barb City, written by
historian Steve Bigolin.
Over its 118-year history, the home has had only seven
owners. The newest owners are James T. Lehan III and his wife,
Jessica, who bought the home in March and began some interior
work, and will move there this weekend from Geneva.
The 3,920-square-foot, two-story home has five bedrooms,
a great room measuring 38 feet by 14 feet, plus the kitchen,
library, living and dining rooms. It also has a foyer, a screened
porch and a large terrace. Out to the northeast in back is the
carriage house (garage) with an apartment overhead.
The selling price in March was $285,000. It is interesting
to note that the house originally was valued at $75,000 back
in 1900. As the story goes, some of it gleaned from Earl Hayters
history of NIU in his book Education in Transition,
Isaac Ellwood and his fellow barbed wire barons Jacob Haish and
Joseph Glidden, plus DeKalb Chronicle Editor Clinton Rosette,
led the campaign to attract a new college planned by the state
to DeKalb. Once they had won the competition for the normal
The Lehans stand in front of one of two fireplaces
on the main floor of their house. On the left is Jessica with
daughters Ryann and Maya. On the right is Jim Lehan holding son
Jack with daughter Kaytie in front.
(Schrader photos for ShawMedia)The mansion at 411 College Avenue in DeKalb is shown
with the carriage house on the right to the rear.
Ellwood kept his promise to the state college search committee
to build a presidents mansion nearby. That helped lure
Cook from the presidency of Illinois State Normal to set up the
That is why I wish the old house could talk, as it must
have heard details of the early planning for the college, all
about the faculty and staff Cook interviewed and selected, and
much about his personal life, part of which was a fascination
with the new-fangled motorcars. He became one of the first in
DeKalb to own one. According to Hayters book, he drove
it up the plank road a short distance away each day and parked
it under the protection of the Castle arches.
Getting back to the house, Ellwood sold it after Cook retired,
and the second president did not remain there long, as his wife
was disabled, which made a two-story house impractical. The buyer
was named Ralworth. About 1928 he sold it to the Raymonds, owners
of the DeKalb Daily Chronicle. C. Edward Raymonds family
lived in the main house and his brother, Charles, had the apartment
in the carriage house, until he purchased a home of his own.
The Raymonds lived there 40 years, then in 1968, they sold it
to Dr. Stuart Olson, a local physician, who kept it 20 years.
The next owners for 10 years were Tom and Brenda McDonald. Then
Robert and Megan Morrison (owner of Moxies) owned it until the
recent sale to the Lehans.
I asked the Lehans what attracted them to the home
was it the history, the size, its architecture or just a desire
to come back to DeKalb? It was all of the above, but then they
told me that Jessicas mother once told her daughter that
one day she might live in the Ellwood mansion on North First
Street. That did not happen, but the Lehans held their wedding
there. Then this house, also built by Isaac Ellwood, caught their
attention when it went on the market and now they own
an Ellwood House.
Pretty neat story a childhood dream come true, almost.