March 17, 2015

All in the Family: Barbara Donnelly Dishes About Lockport’s Gaylord Building

  • By: Katherine Malone-France

Barbara Donnelley during the restoration of the Gaylord Building (left); the present-day facade of the Gaylord Building (right)

Fast facts about the Gaylord Building, a National Trust Historic Site in Lockport, Illinois:

  • It is the only industrial building within our portfolio of historic sites.
  • It represents a great example of adaptive reuse in the Illinois and Michigan Canal Heritage Corridor, the first heritage area ever designated in the country.
  • And it all came to be thanks to the effort of one devoted family.

In the early 1980s, Gaylord Donnelley learned that the Gaylord Building, which had fallen into disrepair, had once been owned by his family. So he purchased the building and formed the Gaylord Lockport Company with family members. They set out to renovate the building with the hope that it would spur a regional economic revitalization effort.

Gaylord selected his niece-by-marriage, Barbara Donnelley, to oversee the building’s rehabilitation. Between 1983 and 1987, archaeologists, historians, architects, and a multitude of tradesmen rehabilitated the building.

In 1984, President Reagan officially established the I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor. In 1988, Gaylord Donnelley received the President’s Historic Preservation Award from Ronald Reagan in recognition of the extensive planning and high-quality workmanship that went into rehabilitating the building. And in 1996, the Gaylord Building became a National Trust Historic Site.

We recently asked Barbara Donnelley a few questions about her family’s relationship to this unique property, what she loves about it, and her hopes for its future.

The Gaylord Building ca. 1880

How is your family connected to the history of the Gaylord Building and the town of Lockport?

My husband's family was among the earliest settlers in Lockport. An early settler of Lockport, Alvin Lull, Gaylord Donnelley's great-grandfather, said upon seeing Chicago, "I am not staying here as this is a mud hole. I am going to Lockport where the future is."

His daughter, Anne Imershia, married George Gaylord , and their daughter, Laura, married Thomas E. Donnelley , Gaylord's father. George Gaylord owned the building in the late 19th century. The family were prominent civic leaders, and George Gaylord was a member of the Illinois State Legislature.

What are your memories of the Gaylord Building before it became a National Trust Historic Site?

I first saw the building in 1981 when Jerry Adelmann, knowing my interest in historic preservation, took me to Lockport. Gaylord Donnelley had seen the Gaylord Building with Jerry when he visited the cemetery where his grandparents, George and Anne Gaylord, were buried. We all were drawn to the building as it had been owned by George Gaylord and embodied such an important part of the history of the area because it had served as the warehouse for the construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal.

The Gaylord Building ca. 1930

After much time and effort by Gaylord, Jerry, and myself, Gaylord purchased the building in the 1980s, after saying that he would not restore it until the Illinois and Michigan National Historic Corridor was designated by Congress. However, soon after he purchased it, we began the restoration, which took two years and much traveling back and forth to oversee the project. I think that we are still familiar with every detail that went into the construction.

The Gaylord Building opened in 1987 with a grand event that was attended by over 100 guests, and then Governor James Thompson cut the dedication ribbon. We had people in period dress, including my children, to represent the historic past of the now up-to-date adaptively reused structure.

At the time of opening, we were proud to have an Illinois Department of Conservation Visitors Center, the Illinois State Museum Lockport Gallery, and the Public Landing Restaurant in the building. Knowing that we could not continue to run it over time, Gaylord Donnelley approached the National Trust to take on the building as one of its properties. In 1996, the building was given to the Trust with a substantial endowment and a capital projects fund.

I have continued to be involved since then as a member of the Gaylord Building Site Council, and it is one of the most fulfilling things that I have been lucky enough to be part of.

Gaylord Building before restoration and adaptive reuse, ca. 1983

What is your favorite architectural feature or space in the Gaylord Building?

How do I define one particular space in this building that is a favorite of mine? I have to take a broader approach and say the exterior facade of the Gaylord Building is what I love most. The warmth of the Joliet limestone [and] the geometry of the distinctive arches of the old warehouse portion coupled with the Italianate windows of the newer building create an inviting and inspiring welcome. I never tire of coming down the hill and seeing it waiting there to greet me.

The Gaylord Building is an example of adaptive reuse with part of the building leased to the Public Landing restaurant. How do you think this makes the Gaylord Building different from other historic sites?

The Gaylord Building was the first adaptive reuse building owned by the National Trust. The Public Landing Restaurant was also a first for the Trust. It expanded the scope of the National Trust’s collection from historic houses to [include] a former industrial and commercial building which showcases what can be done to make an old commercial building relevant today.

People come to the popular Public Landing Restaurant and come away with a feeling that they have been a part of the past of the region, yet have seen an up-to-date functioning building. Additionally, it showcases the relevance of the building to the Illinois and Michigan Canal and historic downtown Lockport.

The Gaylord Building after restoration

As the National Trust works to re-imagine its historic sites, how would you like to see the Gaylord Building change over the next decade?

I envision once more a Visitors Center where people come to learn about the history of the building, the town of Lockport, and the National Heritage Corridor. They will be given the information and help that will take them on to see the rest of the region after they enjoy the Gaylord Building.

A constant array of programs, plus an overarching familiarity with the Building, will draw people from all over the Chicago area. A vigorous marketing and programmatic component will be an inspiration for all ages to visit often. The building will continue to have an innovative approach to its mission as a part of the National Trust.

Katherine Malone-France is the National Trust's Chief Preservation Officer

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