The composition of the Downtown Oswego Historic District [†] is predominately commercial with few commercial-converted historic residential buildings interspersed. The areas directly south, east, and north of the district are predominately residential, while the area west of the district was historically industrial though many of the buildings have been demolished and the lots remain undeveloped.
Situated in the floodplain of the Fox River the topography of the district is relatively flat. Though located in close proximity to the river, it is not a distinct visual feature of the district due to the district being historically physically and visually separated from the river by the riverfront industrial corridor.
Due to the district's location two-and-a-half blocks east of the eastern bank of the Fox River, the street pattern was laid out in a standard grid, with alleys, but its alignment varies on the curvature of the river. The orientation and layout of the streets remain unchanged since the earliest development in the district. The main arterial road through the district is the east-west US Route 34 (Washington Street/Walter Payton Memorial Highway) which bifurcates the district near the southern boundary. It is a 211.37-mile east-west highway established in 1926 which runs from the Iowa state line at Gulfport, west of Galesburg, to Illinois Route 43 and Historic US Route 66 at Harlem Avenue in Berwyn, Illinois. The secondary east-west streets within the district (Jackson and Washington Streets) serve as local streets which connect to the primary north-south through street of Main Street.
For connectors and thoroughfares, widths are consistent at forty-five to fifty feet, with or without on-street parallel parking. The only exception is Van Buren Street which is substantially narrower at twenty-four feet in width due to its location as a border street between the downtown and residential area to the south. Historically, the portions of the streets located within the district were wider to allow for the larger horse-drawn carriages and ox-drawn wagons, street vendors, and general commercial activities. Today, the extra width has been converted to parallel parking along Main Street and Jackson Streets. All streets and alleys are paved with contemporary asphalt.
Alleys run east-west and north-south bisecting each block into four quadrants, with the exception of both alleys on the block located on the west side of Main Street between Jefferson and Jackson Streets and the north half of the north- south alley on the block located on the west side of Main Street between Jackson and Washington Streets. In both instances, the alleys have been vacated and replaced with parking lots.
The district was also serviced by the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad's (CBQ) Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley (OOFRV) Railroad, with the line running parallel to the Fox River and one block west of Main Street. The line ran from Ottawa, in La Salle County, to Elgin, in Kane County, by way of Oswego, in Kendall County. Historically, the CBQ passenger and freight depot was located on the south side of Jackson Street on the east side of the railroad. The railroad provided passenger service to downtown Oswego, as well freight service to Oswego's industrial district located west of downtown between the railroad and Fox River, as well as the Wayne and Sons Steam Elevator and Oswego Co-operate Creamery Co. located just outside of the district at Adams and Tyler Streets. The depot was demolished in 1972, following the discontinuance of service to Oswego. Today, the rail line is operated by the Illinois Railway and connects the sand mines near Ottawa, Illinois with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) line in Aurora, Illinois.
The buildings in the district follow national trends in architectural styles and building typologies popular at their time of construction. Each building reflects its construction date based on architectural details and construction methods. All buildings can be identified by their typology. Typical building typologies found in the district include commercial types such as the one and two-part commercial blocks, as well as a few remaining mid-nineteenth century and early twentieth-century dwellings. Furthermore, many buildings can be identified by an architectural style. During the development of the DOHD, details of the Greek Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne, Late Classical Revival, Romanesque Revival, and the later Modern style were applied to common commercial and residential building forms.
Individually notable resources include the Oswego Post Office, Knapp Building, Union Block, Schickler Building, and the Burkhart Block. All buildings are contributing to the district. Descriptions of each building follow.
The DOHD is locally significant as the original and only center of commerce in Oswego. The following sections illustrate the history and development of the Village of Oswego, of which the downtown was and continues to be the heart of, and provide examples of how the built environment of the district developed and transformed relevant to the history of the Village.
The site for the Village of Oswego was a clear choice for settlers. Located at the confluence of Waubonsie Creek and the Fox River and the site of a natural limestone ford that provided settlers with the opportunity to cross the Fox River between Ottawa and Geneva for access to Chicago and Joliet. The first settlers to the area that would become Oswego were William Smith Wilson and his wife, Rebecca (Pearce) Wilson in 1833. The family homesteaded along the south side of Waubonsie Creek, purchasing the southwest fractional section of Section 17 in the township, and the future site of the original Village of Oswego. Other pioneering landholders in the area included Walter Loucks, who later purchased Wilson's holdings and facilitated further subdivision of the town; Levi G. Gorton; and Nathaniel Rising.
In 1835, businessmen Lewis Brinsmaid Judson and Levi F. Arnold arrived from New York and formally platted the Village of Oswego, at the time known as Hudson, in the present-day area bounded by Jefferson, Harrison, Benton, and Monroe Streets. Arnold would go on to construct Oswego's first store at the site of 68 Main Street (destroyed by fire in 1867).
Two years later the community would be renamed to Lodi after the first post office was established. The name would be permanently changed to Oswego, in honor of Oswego, New York, from the home state of several of the Village's earliest pioneers. "Oswego" is believed to be a Seneca (Iroquois Confederacy) word meaning "the flowing out place," appropriate for a community situated where the Waubonsee Creek flows into the Fox River.
Upon settlement, Oswego's early millwrights quickly harnessed the hydraulic power of the Fox River, Waubonsie Creek, and Bartlett's Creek. Merritt Clark's Mills, located at the north end of Adams Street (today the site of Millstone Park), provided flour and ground corn, while Hopkins Mill supplied fresh-sawn lumber for new construction in the burgeoning town. Within the first decade of Oswego's founding, bridges over the Fox River and Waubonsie Creek and dams were built to connect with the surrounding agricultural lands and developing northeastern Illinois region.
In 1836 the Temple stagecoach line (later known as Frink & Walker) began regular service on the "High Prairie Trail" (central) and western branches of the Chicago to Ottawa Road through the Village. At the time of the United States Government's survey in 1842, Oswego consisted of about thirty wooden buildings and hotels, including the stately National Hotel on Main Street, the Kendall House, and the Smith House.
The restructuring of LaSalle and Kane Counties to create Kendall County on February 19, 1841, with Oswego's budding population and commercial enterprises, prompted the United States Government to publish the first survey map of Oswego Township in 1842 to facilitate future land sales.
Three years later, the community's first public school was opened in downtown at Madison and Van Buren Streets (demolished), and the county seat was moved from Yorkville to Oswego in September 1845 following petitions from 432 Oswego residents. Oswego served as the county seat until 1864 when a second referendum moved the county seat back to its central location in Yorkville. Circuit Court was held in the National Hotel on Main Street until a new courthouse was built in 1848 on the downtown block bounded by Madison, Jackson, Monroe, and Jefferson Streets (demolished).
Despite Oswego's flourishing growth, the extension of the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad (CBQ) from Turner Junction (West Chicago) to Aurora bypassed the Village and constructed the Oswego Station in 1853 approximately two miles northwest of the downtown and Village center in remote Oswego Township. Without a central railroad link, Oswego Township farmers and the burgeoning industries located on the Fox River and Waubonsie Creek were not able to take advantage of commercial opportunities in Chicago created by the railroad. The loss of the county seat combined with decentralized railroad service nearly stunted further growth and development of Oswego over the following two decades.
Oswego and the Ottawa, Oswego, and Fox River Valley Railroad (1860-1899)
Regardless of the challenges facing Oswego, local real estate developers, such as Lewis B. Judson, and Loucks and Stafford, subdivided and annexed the immediate areas surrounding the Village in anticipation of future development, while a thriving agricultural economy continued to support the businesses located in Oswego's downtown. Businesses such as general stores, hardware stores, drug stores, cooper shops, tailor shops, blacksmith shops, and livery stables lined Main Street in rows of two-story frame buildings with gabled roofs obscured by false-front parapets. In the district today, only the Oswego Post Office building at 64 S. Main Street, constructed in 1874, remains as an example of Oswego's early commercial architecture. Much of Oswego's downtown was destroyed by a fire in 1867, which inadvertently, prompted the transition from simple, frontier wood frame commercial and residential structures to considerable brick structures for commerce and living.
Following the fire, Oswego's merchants rebuilt with fireproof materials such as brick. The extant Union Block, located at 72-78 (formerly 70-78) Main Street was the first building to be constructed after the fire and started a brick building tradition that continues in present-day downtown Oswego.
After the fire, Oswego received an economic boost when the Ottawa, Oswego, and Fox River Valley Railroad (OOFR) was constructed through the Village in 1870, along the western edge of downtown. The same year, the CBQ acquired the line, and Oswego residents would soon reap the benefits of freight and passenger service when the Oswego Station of the OOFR opened on Jackson Street near North Adams Street (demolished).
With a centralized rail line, Oswego's economy prospered as farmers from across the township could now easily ship raw materials, such as corn and wheat, or finished products processed at the mills located along the rail line. Approximately four years after the OOFR line opened, Oswego's first grain elevator, Wayne & Son's Steam Elevator, was constructed in c.1874, at the southwest corner of Adams and Van Buren Streets. The original grain elevator remains intact at 171-73 Adams Street, as well as a later cribbed construction grain elevator built under the direction of local grain dealer William Cliggitt in 1914. In conjunction with Oswego's grain economy, the Village had a thriving livestock economy. Cattle and hog sheds were constructed near the depot by the railroad in 1872. Farmers would drive their livestock to town typically for shipment to Chicago's Union Stockyards.
In addition to Oswego's well-known agricultural economy, the community also relied on the lesser-known limestone and flagstone stone quarries and lime kilns, surrounding the Village. Prior to the first white settlement of Oswego, Native Americans mined the chert veins layered in the limestone along Waubonsie Creek. Some of the earliest known non- native operations are those recorded on the 1870 Kendall County atlas map. At this time, there were four quarries in operation within approximately two miles of the Village center including:
By the turn of the twentieth century, the region's stone began to lose favor to Indiana's Bedford limestone and less expensive building materials such as brick and concrete, and by the 1903 Kendall County atlas all of Oswego's quarries were closed.
Many of Oswego's oldest surviving buildings, dating from the mid-nineteenth century, are constructed from limestone quarried in the community. Two of these buildings are located in the DOHD, the Stone Store (constructed and first operated by W.O. Parke) at 27 S. Main Street (altered and non-contributing) and the John Chapman Residence at 62 W. Washington Street (contributing).
Oswego continued to diversify its industrial base throughout the late nineteenth century with dairy companies, wagon shops, and lumber and grist mills. Mid-nineteenth century newspapers reported the establishment of the Moore shops, which manufactured sash, doors, and wagons, Roe and Seely's Cheese Factory, and the W. S. Bunn lumber company. Sanborn Insurance Maps of Oswego in 1885 document companies such as M. J. Pogue and Son Lumber Company, D. M. Haight's Grist Mill, William Parker and Son Mill, William Parker and Son Furniture Factory, Esch Brothers and Rabe Ice Houses, Fox River Butter Company, and Hebert & Son Carriage Shop. The Sanborn Maps of 1892 and 1898 show additional businesses including the Oswego Co-operative Creamery Company, John Young and Son Wagon Shop, F. D. Winslow Flour Mill, and the P. Cooney Feed Mill � all located adjacent to downtown and the OOFR rail line.
Oswego witnessed a small population boom during the 1870s and into the 1880s when a great number of residences and downtown commercial buildings were constructed. Street lamps were installed for the first time in 1882, and a new school building was constructed called the Red Brick School following a fire in the Old Stone School. It was built on the site of the old Kendall County Courthouse.
Despite a township-wide decrease in the population at the beginning of the 1890s, Oswego's economy remained stable and its downtown continued to thrive. In addition to offering typical goods and services found in a commercial center, the downtown also provided space on the upper floors of the commercial buildings for prominent clubs and fraternal organizations to meet, including the Modern Woodmen of America, the Knights of Pythias, and the Freemasons. Also available for the socialization of Oswego residents were a small number of saloons, like the Oswego Saloon at 67 Main Street (contributing) and the Star Roller Rink at 70 Main Street (demolished). The town improved itself with its first concrete sidewalks and its own waterworks and elevated tank completed by 1895.
The Arrival of the Interurban and the Automobile In Oswego (1900-1945)
Improvements to Oswego's infrastructure continued into the twentieth century with the arrival of the Aurora Elgin & Yorkville Railway, an interurban trolley line, in 1900. The line made another connection to Oswego with Aurora to the north and Yorkville to the south, while undoubtedly adding to the economy and quality of life for Oswego's residents. The electric interurban railway appeared in America around the turn of the century and served suburban and rural communities that were either too small or too remote for mainline railroad service. Later, larger cities adopted this mode of transportation for commuter service.
The Fox River Valley had already established itself as an important commuting area west of Chicago, with railroad lines that operated eastward to and westward from the city. However, a new passenger line, in the form of an interurban, was desired to operate north and south through the Fox River Valley. The first interurban line was established in 1895 from Elgin to Carpentersville under the Carpentersville, Elgin and Aurora Railway Co. Additional segments were completed in 1896 (Elgin to St. Charles and Aurora to Geneva) and 1900 (Aurora to Yorkville), operated by the Carpentersville, Elgin and Aurora Railway Co., and the Aurora and Geneva Electric Railway, respectively. Additionally, there was a second branch between Aurora and Yorkville operated by The Aurora, Yorkville & Morris Railway to connect its namesake towns. This branch included Oswego along its route, reaching the Village by 1900, and completing the line to Yorkville by 1901.
The three individual interurban lines merged in 1901, along with the earlier Aurora Street Railway Co., to form the Elgin, Aurora & Southern Traction Company (EA&S). In 1906, the EA&S merged with the Aurora Elgin & Chicago Railway (AE&C) and incorporated as the new Aurora Elgin & Chicago Railroad's Fox River Division. The company was separated by order of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in 1923 and formed the Chicago Aurora and Elgin Railroad, which acquired the assets of the former AE&C, and the Aurora, Elgin and Fox River Electric Company, which obtained the assets of the former EA&S.
Although interurban railways had their own rights-of-way in the countryside, they often were found running down the main streets of the towns they served, with depots that were located in a storefront along the community's main commercial street.The interurban in Oswego crossed the river and CBQ tracks at Washington Street until it turned south onto Main Street which it followed out of the Village limits on its way to Yorkville. Oswego's downtown district was at the heart of the interurban in the community, as the first stop/last stop in Oswego was reportedly located in the former Chapman Residence (contributing) at the central intersection of Main and Washington Streets. Most interurbans in Illinois did not last past the Great Depression, mainly because of economic conditions and the rising use of the automobile. Interurban operations were terminated from Aurora to Yorkville on the AE&C in 1924.
Despite the discontinuance of the interurban, with the advent of the automobile, Oswego again found itself as a central transportation hub located at the junction of three state highways, Illinois Route 25, Illinois Route 71, and Illinois Route 31, and one national highway, U.S. Route 34. Because of Oswego's historic location at the junction of multiple major transportation routes, little change occurred in the downtown during the early twentieth century, but instead, the district saw the development of historically vacant lots. The established historic downtown continued to serve as the heart of the community, sustained by individual and family-run businesses including dry goods stores, tailors, drug stores, bakeries, butchers, and hardware stores. One of the most historically significant commercial blocks to open during the early twentieth century was the Burkhart Block at 100-08 South Main Street (1911). It housed the Oswego State Bank in its corner storefront, the new Oswego Post Office, telephone exchange, and the Burkhart Garage. Oswego also received a combination building for its Village Hall, Water Works, and Fire Department at 113 South Main Street (c. 1925, demolished). Previously Village Hall was located on the south side of Washington Street just east of Adams Street (demolished) and the Fire Department was located in the old Oswego Post Office Building. Other commercial buildings such as the Voss Building at 103-107 South Main Street (1918) which housed a barbershop, real estate office, and dentist were also constructed during the first quarter of the twentieth century.
Road improvements of the early twentieth century also increased the mobility of Oswego residents and travelers from Chicago who took advantage of the recreational opportunities along the Fox River. The automobile age ushered in significant and rapid change to the rural landscape outside of our nation's cities. In the first decade of the automobile, motoring was a hobby pursued mostly by the wealthy. However, as the purchase price and upkeep of mass-produced automobiles steadily decreased in the late 1910s, private automobile ownership increased. With automobile ownership, residents were afforded freedom and mobility beyond the interurban and railroads that radiated out of Chicago prior to 1920. Urban dwellers began to ride out to the country on newly paved roads for pleasure and recreation, many on day, weekend, or longer-term vacations. The joys of the open road and touring potential created by the automobile were captured and popularized in magazines in the 1920s. Others saw beyond the excursion possibilities of the automobile and used their cars to commute greater distances between their home and work. To serve the growing population of car owners, newly-formed auto clubs and automobile enthusiasts lobbied for new and improved roads across the country. The need for better roads led to the passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act by Congress in 1916, which catalyzed nearly two decades of road building. The era became known as the "golden age of highway building" in the United States, with more than 420,000 miles of roads constructed. Many states including Illinois established a highway department, and smooth, macadamized roads were built outward from Chicago and on established routes, including former dirt roads, throughout the state. Township roads slowly were "pulled out of the mud" and improved, while others remained dirt roads until booming suburban development following World War II forced their improvement.
In Oswego, these improvements would result in the paving of Washington Street as today's U. S. Route 34, a major national highway that begins at Chicago's city limits in Berwyn, Illinois, and runs in a southwesterly direction through Oswego toward its western terminus at the Iowa state line at Gulfport, Illinois.
Three former trails became major state highways including Illinois Routes 25, 31, and 71. Oswego's five-corner intersection, at the junction of Chicago Road (U.S. Route 34), Madison Street, and Jefferson Street, became a hub of auto traffic through Oswego by the end of the 1920s. It was here that Oswego experienced the impact of the automobile when its first gas stations were opened including the extant Tudor Revival style Tydol (Tidewater Oil Company) service station at 25 South Madison Street.
In addition to the commercial and auto-related developments encouraged by the improvements in transportation infrastructure, new residential development was also promoted on the remaining rural land along these new highways which remained affordable and allowed families to build single-family houses on substantial acreage. An excellent example of a country estate developed along the newly paved roads is the estate of local physician, the Dr. Lewis Weishaw House (known commonly as "Stonegate," constructed 1926-1927), located just north of downtown. The estates were typically sited on large lots that had not been previously subdivided for development. With an interest in estate homes pervading the media of the day, prominent and wealthy clients were motivated to search for large parcels where they could build a spacious home in a private, yet natural setting.
Due to the improvements of the first half of the twentieth century, and the subsequent commercial and residential development, Oswego continued to be the largest town in Oswego Township, supported by residents of the Village and the surrounding unincorporated rural areas, yet would not see much growth and development until the post-World War II era.
Oswego Post-World War II to Present-day (1945-2022)
Following World War II, the rural landscape of Illinois would be dramatically altered with the availability of federal funds to improve and build expressways under the series of Federal-Aid Highway Acts. The modern interstate system would impose new suburban development pressures as previously remote rural communities were now easily accessible via the automobile.
The rising population, suburban development, and new jobs spurred the creation of the Village's first residential subdivisions since 1907. Simultaneously, these subdivisions prompted the construction of new services and institutions, several in downtown Oswego, including the new Oswego High School at 51-61 Franklin Street (1951), the former fire station constructed at 59 South Main Street (1954), and a new library at 32 West Jefferson Street (1964).
With an increase in population and a national shift to an automobile-centric society, downtown Oswego was also impacted as the changing habits of both the merchant and the shopper produced a new kind of shopping experience. As people became more dependent upon the automobile, small pedestrian-oriented, historic commercial centers with limited available parking could not meet the demand. Additionally, department stores and supermarkets sought to service smaller towns, but needed larger spaces, beyond what could be accommodated in the historic downtown, to incorporate wider aisles, larger displays, and deeper shelves. Historic commercial districts, like Oswego, began competing with shopping centers and strip malls located on the periphery of the Village. Meeting modern retailing needs presented challenges for the downtown's continued viability. To maintain the viability of downtown Oswego, parking lots were created on the edges of Main Street and storefronts were modernized.
Additionally, with the completion of the national highway system, the advent of trucking, and the decline of rail traffic, industrial development could now also relocate outside of the central business district to larger campuses on the periphery of communities. In Oswego, this shift in industrial development first occurred in the mid-1950s when the Western Electric and Caterpillar plants were built just north of the Village.
The extensive growth of neighboring Naperville and Aurora during the mid-to-late twentieth century also spurred large- scale developments around Oswego in the 1980s. The Village extended its boundaries west of the Fox River and annexed areas to the east and north, with the majority of construction activity concentrated alongU.S.Route34. In the 1990 U.S. Census, Oswego's population stood at 3,875. By the 2000 census, Oswego's population had grown to 13,326, making Oswego the largest community in Kendall County. Two decades later, Oswego's population has nearly tripled to 34,585, and the Village remains one of the fastest-growing communities in the Chicago metropolitan area.
The last 177 years of commerce and trade history and development of Oswego is depicted through the notable and well- preserved commercial structures of the Downtown Oswego Historic District, from 1845, the date of the oldest building in the district, through the end of the period of significance in 1972. The district continues to serve and provide the community with many of the same goods and services it has over the last century while retaining sufficient architectural integrity and a strong sense of place representative of the commercial history of Oswego making it eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
† Adapted from: Erica Ruggiero/Architectural Historian. McGuire Igleski & Associates, Inc., Downtown Oswego Historic District, nomination document, 2022, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
Jackson Street West • Main Street South • Washington Street West