Ayoung man has been perched up in a tree overlooking 401 Park Ave. for almost 200 years. Since the young lad is my own literary invention, I am able to chat with him freely as I uncover the history of one of Galena’s most important historic buildings.
“Oh, that hotel was grand, but I was here even before the Union Hotel,” he told me excitedly. “I sat secretly in the shadows when William Bennet (1778-1852) and his wife Rebecca (1784-1872) signed ownership of that land to their son Charles Reading Bennet (1807-1878). That was in 1830. I sat in a different tree at Greenwood Cemetery when each of them was buried. In 1839, the property was sold to John Dement, who sold it to Thomas Mather in 1843. I remember everything!”
“I have so many tales to tell you about so many of the owners,” he continued. “But before I do, I am worried. What if people buy the house at the auction and do not understand its stories? Oh, I have watched it all–a family of girls, a brilliant inventor, a son who went mad and was sent away, a widow, a man who placed an ad in the Galena Directory for the Union Hotel in 1850 and then because of illness had to sell all its contents five years later, the railroad, the stockyards!”
What he had seen tumbled out of him, but then he remembered the sign he’d just seen on the door. His eyes grew large and very sad. Finally, he looked at me, “What does it mean…condemned?”
If I am honest, it was hard to explain how the land and house deteriorated so much that it was Condemned As Unfit for Residential Occupancy just last month.
The violations on the sign which the boy saw on the door cited these violations of the 2018 International Property Maintenance Code: Vacant structures and land; Roofs and Drainage; Exterior walls; Protective treatments, Window, skylight, and door frames.”
Jonathan Miller at Galena City Hall later provided me with the public record letters he had sent the Coppotellis, which gave them warnings starting in 2018, including precise changes required for the historic building and grounds. The most recent letter containing the official condemnation was sent to the Bank of New York Mellon Trust Company on Oct. 21, 2021. With its nearly two centuries of history, 401 Park Ave. is now in foreclosure. As of this writing, it is up for auction.
Carla Coppotelli and her husband Mike purchased the property from the Birkbeck family with big dreams. It was “basically uninhabitable” when they restored its 14 rooms enough to place the home on the tour of Historic Galena Homes in 2001. They removed the two-story porch attached to what had once been the front entrance of the hotel. She planned on restoring it.
When the Galena River was still the Fever River, wide and deep enough to harbor steamboats, 200 wooden steps led from the river landing to the front door of the then Union House Hotel.
The boy and I walked down the hill on Madison to look up to what is now the rear of the house. We saw what the boy thought was the original door. The porch was not there.
Instead, the back area was a steep hill of loose soil and scraggly growth.
The young boy was downcast when we returned to the tree that day. Since he is just a literary device to tell this story, I can place myself in the tree to comfort him. To cheer him up, we looked at a copy of a plat map from 1893.
I pointed out “Block 10, Lots 1,2, and 3 on the east side of the river.”
He recognized the distinctive shape of the first log structure. “A big rectangle with two arms!” I pointed to the stockyards, which also appear in the Sanborn Insurance map of 1893.
“The animals were stinky and loud. But we were friends!” the boy said before he fell asleep on my shoulder.
While he rests, I will continue my research.