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Bishop Hill seeks funding to restore historic buildings

Colony Church in Bishop Hill
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Colony Church in Bishop Hill

The village of Bishop Hill is seeking state funding to repair its 175-year-old historic site.

A measure from Republican Sen. Neil Anderson of Moline and Republican Rep. Travis Weaver of Pekin would allocate state funds to restore the Bishop Hill State Historic Site.

They said the site, which was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and includes a visitor center, museum, park, church, barn and a hotel, has been ignored for years and is in desperate need of repairs. The state took ownership of the properties in 1946 to help with their preservation, but Anderson says they have not followed through on that promise.

“As a state, we have a job to maintain our infrastructure, and it’s unfortunate that these historical buildings have been allowed to fall in such disarray,” Anderson said. “The continued neglect of Bishop Hill is unacceptable. We need the Governor and the General Assembly to prioritize funding to repair and maintain these incredibly important structures.”

The legislation would allocate funds in the fiscal year 2025 budget to repair the site. They say the years of deferred maintenance from the state has caused foundation cracks, water leaks, rotting soffits and windowsills and other issues in the buildings, which were built in the mid-1800s.

Weaver said Pritzker and his administration are causing these issues, criticizing Pritzker's budget for including money for migrants in Chicago and new initiatives instead of projects such as Bishop Hill.

“Illinois legislators and bureaucrats will scream about a lack of funding, but make no mistake, this is five percent about funding and 95 percent about poor management from the Pritzker administration,” Weaver said.

Joella Krause, a fifth-generation descendant of the original Bishop Hill founders, says that since the state took over the site, their commitment to preservation has been nonexistent. She adds that a lack of dedicated funding plus the deferred maintenance has led to the visible decline of the properties, and without any repairs the buildings and their history will be lost.

“Some of these buildings are in poorer condition than others, and each year that passes without help, they visibly get worse,” Krause said. “The pride of locally-owned buildings is a glaring contrast to the state-owned buildings and is unmistakable.”

The site is maintained by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). Weaver believes the IDNR Director Natalie Phelps Finnie can help with his goal of restoring the site. He says he’s been working with the department to explore all the possible avenues for renovation.

“We’ve reached a point where the meetings need to stop and the hammers need to start swinging,” Weaver said.

John Taylor, a local Bishop Hill business owner, said that a recent assessment of the Colony Church by historic building preservationist Rick Collins showed that it is on the brink of a financial turning point. According to Collins, the church’s drip edge is allowing water in at an alarming rate, and if it’s not replaced within a few years the cost to repair it will multiply tenfold.

Krause also recognized the “unspeakable shape” the church was in, and said that since the site was taken over by the IDNR following the dissolution of the state’s preservation division, no material dollars or attention have been given to preserving and maintaining Bishop Hill. She’s been told to wait for funding, but she’s tired of waiting.

“For several consecutive years, we’ve heard Bishop Hill is ‘on a list’ for funding but have yet to see any action,” Krause said. “We ask that this inaction stop today.”

Mason Klemm is a reporting intern for WCBU. He is studying sports communication at Bradley University and is expected to graduate in May 2024.