DANVILLE — Reverting a piece of Danville’s history is going to take time.
After all, residents are used to seeing owners of the historic Fischer Theatre, various homes such as in the West Downtown area and other buildings being brought back to life.
John and Karyn Smith, formerly of Ireland, are taking on the historic Harmon house, which also has been called the Colonel Harmon Mansion, at 522 E. Main St.
They came to Danville last year after purchasing the house, which they saw photos of online, and are tackling the numerous projects to make it their home.
The circa-1850s Harmon house had been abandoned and saved in the past. Col. Oscar Fitzalan Harmon had a farm, which originally extended to Stony Creek. It was divided into building lots in 1888.
Harmon and his wife, Elizabeth, built the house on 30 acres of land on the south side of what is now East Main Street. At that time it was on the east edge of the village of Danville, and Harmon referred to the property as his “little farm.” The walls of the antebellum-style brick home are nearly a foot thick and walnut wood was used extensively in the building, according to Don Richter with the Vermilion County Museum.
Harmon’s little farm had stables, an ice house, an orchard and a rose garden. By 1860, Harmon was a leader in the community and was representing his district in the Illinois House of Representatives. His friend Abraham Lincoln, who stayed with the Harmons during some visits to Danville, was his adviser when he entered politics. In November 1860, Lincoln was elected U.S. president.
The house has seen numerous uses through more recent decades. It and the house next door at 530 E. Main St. — which both in the past were connected and the Smiths also bought — have been a bridal and tuxedo shop, restaurant, catering service, dinner theater, hospital for Wabash Railroad employees, church chapel, funeral home, addiction center and rehabilitation facility for alcoholics and drug abusers, and a residence.
It was in pretty rough shape when the Smiths purchased it.
“We got a surprise when we got here,” Karyn said.
Karyn said their first order of business was to clean.
Carpet has been taken out and they continue to address the industrial parts of the home and large open spaces that had been for the restaurant.
One of the stories they’ve heard from others about the former restaurant was that it used to have an upside-down Christmas tree from the ceiling in one of the areas.
The real estate notice stated it was an investor’s dream with its 6,000 square feet of space, including multiple kitchens, bedrooms, family rooms, and also the house next door.
The Smiths were going to use the front parlor room of the Harmon house for their parrots and had painted a bird-themed wall with that in mind, but then decided against it.
Other work on their list includes replacing windows and getting rid of the industrial parts, such as those relating to the pipes and wiring. They’ve also put up a fence for their dogs.
They’re looking at the color scheme and other home details. They said they’ll continue working on the home little by little to try to restore it.
The plantation-style porch was reportedly added in 1921. The house also includes a great hall area, atrium and sun rooms.
The Smiths came about 7,500 miles, which is about a 9-10 hour flight, to Danville from Offaly, a county in Ireland.
It’s about one and a half hours from Dublin, Ireland, John said.
They lived in a rural setting, so coming to Danville and being within walking distance to shops and restaurants and other amenities, such as bus stops, has been quite a different experience for them.
John is from the Chicago area and met Karyn when he went to university for computer science in Ireland.
John was looking to move back to the United States to be closer to his mother, who has since passed away.
A house purchase fell through in Cullom near Kankakee and a night of insomnia led Karyn to finding the Harmon house online.
Karyn said, “I like architecture.” John said he was familiar with Danville and this area because he used to work for CompuCom and worked on computers, such as at Wal-Marts and other businesses south of Orland Park in Illinois.
Now John works in information technology for Blue Cross Blue Shield.
Karyn said they also were looking for a big historic home and yard space for their six dogs and three parrots.
Realtor Jodi Barney was wonderful to work with and dealing with an international sale, they said.
Daughters Nicole Bolton Smith, 18, and Rebecca Smith, 19, came first to live in the house in Danville in July 2018. Karyn and John came a few months after that.
They brought with them only four suitcases of clothes and necessities. They’ve since bought furniture and little knickknacks and items online and from stores such as Rabbittown Antiques to make the house feel more like a home.
They’ve had to most recently deal with a water main break in the house, and are still trying to see how to best utilize the space.
Nicole said she loves learning about the history of the house.
In her Irish accent, Nicole can rattle off historic information about the house such as about the second-story west side bedroom Abraham Lincoln stayed in, Lincoln listening to a Harmon daughter play piano, Harmon standing at a second-floor window to look out during Lincoln’s Whistle-Stop train tour through Danville as Lincoln gave a speech as he made his trip to Washington. The Smiths call that window area “Lincoln Landing.”
They said they were lucky to have received information about the house from the Civil War Roundtable and local historian Larry Weatherford.
“We would have never known the significance of this house,” Karyn said.
She also said the community has been very helpful and welcoming. People who walk by on East Main Street say hello.
Others who also have been welcoming include First Baptist Church, city code inspector Jim Meharry, the Rabbittown Neighborhood Association and Patricia and Mary Ann Pettigrew, Cheryl Foley and others, they said.
John, who’s a Navy vet, said the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System also has been good to him; and Nicole and Rebecca also have attended Danville Area Community College.
“I’m not a town, city person,” Karyn said.
But she and Nicole said they’ve really enjoyed living in Danville and going to various shops, such as Glory Daze and Flea Pickers U.S.A. downtown. Nicole also volunteers at the Vermilion County War Museum.
The Smiths said they love the history of the Harmon house and it will take time to get it in good shape.
“The hardest part has been researching it,” John said. He said getting information about it has been a little difficult.
“There’s so much you didn’t anticipate,” Karyn added.
She said they’re still trying to decide how to use all of the space
“It doesn’t connect very well,” she said.
“The home is going to take a lot of work and a lot of money,” she added. “We’ll get there.”