As Illinois Times goes to press, demolition of the old rambling, brick mansion at Willemore and Wiggins, known as the Leland Farm house, appears to be imminent. The house was set to be demolished by its owner, Frank Vala, this week. Vala, a prominent Springfield businessman, is chair of the Springfield Airport Authority.
Rumors had been circulating across the city about the pending demolition, creating a buzz on Facebook and spurring the formation of the Friends of the Original Leland Farm House, a group hoping to save the house.
On Monday, Aug. 9, a few members of the Friends group were allowed access to the house. What they discovered was a home in need of repair but still intact. Marble fireplaces with intricate designs, oak paneling, hardwood floors, and a large winding, carved staircase still were in place. Lighting fixtures, old glass windows, even the wicker furniture on the front porch had been left untouched. No outreach to salvage firms or restoration groups had been made, something the group encouraged Vala to do.
Vala said he saw no historical significance of the home.
In fact, the large Leland home (see Illinois Times, Aug. 20, 2020, "Life on the Old Leland Farm") has huge historical significance. Built in the mid-1860s, it stood on 600 acres that encompassed what is now Washington Park, Jerome and Leland Grove. Horace Leland, his sister, Clarissa, and her husband, Colonel Noble Bates Wiggins, lived at the farm. Horace and the Colonel owned the Leland Hotel at Sixth and Capitol. The farm provided much of the food served at the Leland, a thriving hotel that was the site of political events for decades. The farm hosted picnics, receptions, parties and fairs. The Leland land later became part of the area with streets named Noble, Bates, Wiggins and Leland. A nephew, Jerome, who was orphaned when his parents died, came to live at the home in the 1870s, and in 1928 he sold part of the farmland to establish Jerome.
The old Leland house was purchased in 2020 by Frank Vala. He has reported that the house is in such bad shape that there is no other option than to demolish it. But when asked his reason for demolishing the house, he says, "I want a big yard. I bought this house with the intention to demolish it."
Theresa O'Hare, who started the Friends group, says, "I've only been in Springfield for 16 years; this house is my favorite. I had always thought it was well cared for. So, being told it was in disrepair was a surprise, and I regret I didn't start earlier in saving it. Our group wanted to raise money and move the house. It is such a wonderful place and has such history that we felt we must try to save it. Mr. Vala told us he would consider selling it. His demands were that we create a $500,000 endowment in his name and then move the house within nine months. He gave us 10 days to decide."
The group posted on Facebook, planned a petition drive, contacted media and public officials in the affected area, tried to generate interest, and appealed to Vala to address historic preservation.
Before the 10 days were up, Vala told the group that the house would be demolished. He had already applied for a demolition permit. Vala followed the city ordinances, according to Leland Grove Mayor Mary Jo Bangert. "The house has never been listed on the national registry so it is considered a private home," Bangert says.
If the home had ever been listed with national historic significance as other sites in Springfield such as the Dana-Thomas House, the Governor's Mansion, the Vachel Lindsay Home, etc., the group might be able to take the case to court. Without that, the owner has the right to do with his property as he wishes.
That, though, hurts some. Lisa Moffett, a member of the Friends group who toured the house, explains, "I love this house. For years my husband and I walked by the house and thought about buying it if it ever came on the market. We had told the previous owners of our interest, but we were not even given the opportunity to make a bid. It was sold without being put on the market. The house could have found an owner and lasted long after all of us are gone. It has such a large impact on our city's history. Standing here today, I feel sick. We could have done so much with this amazing property."
O'Hare agrees. "The amazing Marbold House in Greenview and the restored Governors' Mansion, which dates from around the same time as the Leland home, have found donors. We could have done the same if given a chance."
Vala has agreed to give the group the summer kitchen, a small brick building adjacent to the property, free of charge. They plan to move it and will be raising funds to open a museum to explain the Leland history and showcase pictures of the house. "We appreciate that Mr. Vala is giving us the summer kitchen," says O'Hare. "It is sad, though, that we weren't offered the chance to remove a fireplace, a lighting fixture, or something from the house. Our group would have raised money to buy items so that this house can forever be remembered."
Cinda Ackerman Klickna often contributes articles about Springfield history and has written about the Leland family and the house.