The Boone County Historical Society received the largest donation in its history -- an iconic Belvidere mansion and $1 million to help maintain it. So what is the society’s vision for its new acquisition?
Boone County Museum of History Executive Director Anna Pivoras walked me through a converted bank and an addition that was built several years back to provide office space as well as a big room for museum events. The museum also rents it out to the public. That explains that 1965 Plymouth Fury -- or some other car -- in your friend’s wedding reception photo.
“We actually have one of the only examples of a 1903 Eldredge Runabout, " she said. "Which is an early car that was built here in Belvidere.”
Then we went into the museum proper. It’s got everything from a real 1840s log cabin to a World War I display to an exhibit centered around Judith Ford -- the Belvidere native crowned Miss America 1969 -- and beyond. It all looks well organized and presented, especially when you consider that it’s housed in the city’s old -- ca. 1900 -- Gas & Electric Building. Pivoras said that does cause a few headaches.
“We have a lot of brick walls and metal walls and pipes and things that we have to work around," she said.
An aesthetic setting, it’s not. That’s one reason Pivoras was so excited about the donation by K-B Farms, Inc. of what’s known locally as the “Funderburg House.” Eager to show it off, she headed down the street with me in tow to the 8,000 square foot mansion.
Next, we went through the door into a spacious entry hall -- an assembly room, Pivoras calls it. The craftsman-style structure was built in 1906 for Belvidere native Katherine Rhinehart, daughter of Civil War General Allen Fuller.
Rhinehart spared no expense. A music room, dining room, library -- all on the main floor. Besides fine woodwork and built-in bookshelves, closets and cabinets throughout, the house has FIVE bathrooms. That at a time when having even one in a house was considered a luxury.
“We’re going into this project hoping it will become a useful community gathering space," Pivoras said. "So we want to keep the rooms -- we want to outfit them with period objects and artifacts, but also make them functional.”
And then we went on to the kitchen. Outside, you could see the servant’s porch. Inside, a refrigerator and stove, old, but in remarkably good condition. They were put in by Hugh and Alice Funderburg, a prominent local family and owners of the Keene-Belvidere Canning Co. -- now K-B Farms -- after they bought the house in the 1930s. Pivoras is excited about recreating a period space.
“Since we have the original appliances," she said, "we want to build off that and utilize the artifacts left behind the Funderburg family, to make a nice bright kitchen that you could walk into and feel like, ‘Somebody lives here.’”
And so it continued, room after room. Some empty, but a few completely furnished, as if their occupants had just stepped out for a moment, rather than decades ago.
Then, it was up to the third floor. Another big open space. Originally a small ballroom, Pivoras said, and later home to a pool table. She gestured to an unusual feature of the space.
“On the walls you’ll see there’s like a wrap-around mural," she said. "I believe this is original, from when the house was built in 1906.”
It was all impressive, and in remarkably good shape, though it was easy to spot lots of plaster and paint work that needed to be done. But Pivoras thinks it has a lot of potential, and not just as a museum.
“Possibly a bridal suite,"she said. "People could stay here over night. Maybe it becomes a place where people can have wedding showers and baby showers. We’ve also discussed doing workshops and lecture series, wine tastings -- things like that.”
Fixing and maintaining an old mansion like this can be expensive. Pivoras said that’s why the historical society was so excited to receive the money for an endowment along with the house. Pivoras said being good stewards of the money means it will take years before all the floors are done. And there will need to be fundraisers along the way to pay for upgrades, such as making entry to the first floor compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. But, she said, the society is anxious to move forward.
“We hope," she said, "to have the doors open to the general public for events and for tours by the first of next year.”
Pivoras herself would love to have it open by the town's community Christmas celebration in early December.
Pivoras knows it will take a lot of effort and -- with a 113-year-old house -- some luck, to do that. But the rewards are great.
“There are so many stories to tell here," she said. "From the point of view of the woman who built it, the daughter of a Civil War general. The Funderburg family who were such influential people in this community. Even from the point of view of the servants that lived here.”
Stories that present a new opportunity -- a new chapter, even -- for the house, the museum, and the Belvidere community.