In the fall of 2021, Tony and Ann Libri took on a monumental project when they decided to purchase the buildings on the 25-acre property that served originally as Ursuline Academy, then as a Benedictine University campus until 2018 when the school closed. Their goal is to bring the campus back to life and return the buildings to their former glory for the public to enjoy. They are putting lots of time, energy and love into the project.
At age 66, Tony could be slowing down and taking life easier, but he seems to have unending energy, especially when it comes to historic preservation. He and Ann are passionate about retaining the character of structures and neighborhoods. Tony said when you do what you love, it's not really work, it's more like a hobby. However, he also acknowledges certain limitations.
"We realized that we couldn't possibly restore all the buildings ourselves, so we gathered some friends who share our dream of preserving the architecture of these historic landmarks," said Tony. "We secured buyers who were interested in restoring several buildings, including the King's Daughters Home, the Ursuline Gymnasium and the Brinkerhoff Home. Gordon and Tammy Fidler bought the Brinkerhoff Home and reopened it in 2022. They lease some space to businesses and offer venue space for parties, receptions and other events. It has quickly become popular and is nothing short of spectacular."
Tony adds that another building, the Becker Library, is now completely restored and has space for businesses to lease. He says it is a great building and suggests it would make an excellent training facility.
The buildings the Libris are restoring include the Music Conservatory, St. Joseph's Chapel, Ursuline Academy and three housing units that previously were used as convents and student housing. Upon purchase, the buildings were immediately donated to Preservation, Inc., a nonprofit established by the Libris, who are now knee-deep in restoration work. They spent 2022 stabilizing building exteriors and cleaning up the grounds.
Of all the buildings, Tony says the Conservatory was in the worst shape. "We needed to replace the roof on the Conservatory, which is a huge 15,400-square-foot space," explains Tony. "We also repaired leaks in other building roofs, replaced about 100 broken windows, installed exterior lighting, replaced gutters, removed dead trees and overgrown bushes and disposed of more than 30 dumpsters of material."
The Libris are now focusing on the interiors. They are replacing rotting floors, installing new heating and cooling systems and making electrical repairs.
"Our first priorities are completing the Conservatory and St. Joseph's Chapel," notes Ann. "The Conservatory will be a beautiful gathering place for celebrations, receptions, theater productions and, of course, all kinds of music. It is acoustically excellent. It has stunning archways on both floors, an exquisite stained-glass window and 15 private music rooms. The Chapel will also be a lovely venue. We hope to open both the Music Conservatory and the Chapel later this year, at least on a limited basis."
The plan for the former Ursuline Academy is to turn it into an artisans' complex. Each room will house a different kind of artistry, such as painters, jewelry makers, sculptors and so on. Tony says the building is in pretty good shape, but it will likely take the rest of this year to complete the work, so the couple is looking at an opening of early 2024.
The Libris are working on designs and ideas for the last three buildings (former housing units) before starting interior renovation. These structures are slated to open in 2024.
"We are excited that the campus will also provide space for The Matthew Project," says Tony. "Ann is the executive director of the nonprofit, which provides food, clothing, tutoring, mentoring and life skills to homeless children in District 186. Our dream is to bring the arts to these wonderful but underserved children."
Overall, Tony says things are going well. He notes that the price of everything has doubled since they started, which has slowed progress a bit, but they are determined to keep moving ahead with the support of the community.
Ann and Tony believe there is a need to preserve the past. They point to the Lincoln sites, The Vachel Lindsay Home, The Dana-Thomas House, The Elijah Iles House and the Hoogland Center for the Arts as examples of how Springfield has honored historic buildings rather than tearing them down.
"Ann and I have always shared a love for historic houses, architecture, wrought iron gates, columns, you name it," says Tony. "We love Springfield, and we have a vision of how this campus can be saved and become a beautiful place to serve and entertain the community."
Jean Campbell is a Springfield freelance writer who loves to tell stories of interesting people, places and organizations.