On the Record

Model renovator

On the Record with Cameron Simpson

Cameron Simpson, an undergraduate student at Northern Illinois University, spent 88 hours renovating a model of the Haish House in DeKalb. The model will be on display at NIU's Founders Memorial Library once a protective glass case is purchased for it.
Cameron Simpson, an undergraduate student at Northern Illinois University, spent 88 hours renovating a model of the Haish House in DeKalb. The model will be on display at NIU's Founders Memorial Library once a protective glass case is purchased for it.

DeKALB – Last fall, Cameron Simpson, an undergraduate student majoring in English and history and minoring in communication studies at Northern Illinois University, was looking for ways to get involved with local history.

Already a volunteer tour guide and museum operations intern at the Ellwood House in DeKalb, Simpson, 19, stopped by the Glidden Homestead to see if they also needed a volunteer.

Cindy Ditzler, director of NIU’s Regional History Center, was there at the time meeting with Rob Glover, executive director of the Glidden Homestead.

Ditzler had brought with her an architectural model of the Haish House in DeKalb made by W. Joseph Zack in 1981 as part of his master’s thesis. Jacob Haish and his family lived in a mansion built in 1884 on the corner of Pine and Third streets in DeKalb. The mansion was demolished in 1961 and is now a parking lot for First Lutheran Church. The Haish House’s carriage house was converted into apartments.

Falling in love with the model of the Haish House, which was falling apart, Simpson volunteered to renovate it. She spent 88 hours on the project, earning school credit through NIU’s honors program, which requires extracurricular learning opportunities. Simpson documented the project with a blog, that shows the renovation process and before and after photos.

The Regional History Center plans to purchase a glass case to display the model in NIU’s Founders Memorial Library. The center is fundraising for the case, which will cost an estimated $2,000 to $4,000. For more information about the model, case or to donate, call 815-753-1779.

Simpson met with MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton to talk more about renovating the Haish House model.

Milton: How did you get involved in the model house renovation project?

Simpson: I am a student at NIU and wanted to get involved in local history. I started volunteering at the Ellwood House in the fall. Around that time, probably in September, I went to ask about volunteer opportunities at the Glidden Homestead. When I was there, Rob Glover was talking to Cindy Ditzler. Cindy was dropping the house off and was talking about it. I was there and saw it. It was in bad shape. I said that I’ve worked on dollhouses before, I can work on this if you need someone to do this. It was an absolute shock to me that they said yes.

Milton: What was your first step after agreeing to take on the project?

Simpson: After I said yes to fixing the model house, I visited the Art Institute of Chicago, where I’m a collections intern in the architecture and design department. At the Art Institute, I spoke to the conservator of the Thorne Miniature Rooms. That discussion pointed me in the right direction. After doing more research and gathering materials, I started the hands-on renovation work in January. I spent 88 hours total on the project.

Milton: Tell me about the model house.

Simpson: W. Joseph Zack completed the model in 1981 for his master’s thesis in fine arts, along with sketches, drawings and a thesis paper. The model house ended up in the DeKalb Public Library and was on display there for decades. Through the years, it started to deteriorate and have sun damage. Then it went to NIU’s Regional History Center, where it was put in a big printer box and shuffled from place to place.

Milton: How is the model house different from the house?

Simpson: The model house is very obviously and clearly different from the real house. Even though the house was torn down in 1961, there are photos of it. For example, there are two doors and porches not included and the servant’s entrance at the back is missing. There are more photos and documentation for certain sections of the house than others.

Milton: What are certain aspects known about the house?

Simpson: For example, we know the chimneys were red brick because we have some of the brick in the University Archives. We also know renovations happened, like the addition of the porte cochere and gazebo. The porte cochere is where you could drive your carriage underneath and have protection from the weather.

Milton: What about the model house caught your eye?

Simpson: I could see the bones of what was once a really beautiful model. I was on the hunt for a project and something to do with my downtime. I’m a history and English student, and I want to go into museum studies and one day be a museum curator. When I talked about [the model house] to my friends and family, they asked me, “What are you doing, are you insane?” It was definitely an exercise in patience unlike anything I’ve ever done. Everything was so small and detailed that I had to be extremely detailed-orientated, take care and be steady of hand. If I moved my hand the wrong way, the tower could have fallen off onto the floor.

Milton: What are some ways you renovated the model house?

Simpson: When I first saw the house, it had all the pieces, but they were not securely attached. Trimwork pieces had popped off and I reglued the trim on top. I cleaned up loose paint and leftover glue. I replaced and reglued the chimneys. The house is empty inside, and to reinforce the walls on the bottom floor, I rested the house on museum board. I restabilized the tower and reglued two porches and windows. The gazebo was nearly destroyed with water damage, and I cleaned and restabilized the gazebo and porte cochere.

Milton: What do you like best about the model house?

Simpson: If you look really closely, there’s a tiny raven on the model. In architectural drawings, there are raven statues on top of high points, but there’s not enough detail for me to see in photos. The one raven statue that’s included in the model is probably my favorite piece.

Milton: How have people reacted to the renovated Haish House model?

Simpson: There was a surprising amount of community support behind the project. Several Haish family members contacted me to express their gratitude to me. I am really proud and happy with how the project turned out. I would do it all again in a heartbeat. It was a lot of fun, and I especially love how people respond to it when they first see it. It’s a gorgeous model of what was once a gorgeous and historic mansion.

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