Kane County History: The Architecture And Origin Story of The William Tanner House

Kane County History: The Architecture And Origin Story of The William Tanner House

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was written by Aurora Historical Society Executive Director John Jaros. All photos are courtesy of the Aurora Historical Society.

On Aug. 7, 1857, the following piece appeared on Page 2 of the Weekly Republican, an Aurora newspaper:


Mr. Tanner’s new house is now fairly enclosed, and work on the inside is progressing.  Few, if any residences on Fox River exhibit more liberality or taste, than this one.  It combines both beauty and convenience, and is just such a house as a man of Mr. Tanner’s means and devotion to business ought to live in, and no doubt he feels an honest pride as he watches it as it progresses, as he has EARNED and BUILT . . . . not inherited.  He has a right to be proud of it.

“Mr. Tanner” was William Augustus Tanner (1815-1892), a prominent hardware merchant. The house, located on Aurora’s near west side, is today the William Tanner House Museum, owned and operated by the Aurora Historical Society since 1936.

William A. Tanner

One of Aurora’s early settlers, William A. Tanner was a 19th-century American success story.

Born in Watertown, NY, he struck out on his own at the age of 20, to seek his fortune in “the West” – Illinois.  He arrived in the Aurora area in October 1835, just a about a year after the first settlers had arrived, and before the Native Americans had left.

Tanner laid claim to several hundred acres of government land that would come available for purchase at $1.25 an acre.  This was in the northern part of Aurora and Sugar Grove townships, near the present-day intersection of Deerpath and Tanner roads in North Aurora.

In 1836, he induced his parents to come join him in the west. In a few years, he was firmly established and making his living as a farmer and surveyor — so much so that he was in a position to go home, take a wife, and bring her back to the farm and start a family.

Anna Tanner

On July 9, 1840, Tanner married schoolteacher Anna Plum Makepeace (1810-1900) of Pamelia, NY. This union produced several children. Between 1841 and 1851, seven children were born on the farm, all but one surviving to adulthood.

In September 1851, Tanner purchased a large lot in town on Walnut Street (West New York Street) between Lake Street and Oak Avenue. There, he built a two-story frame house in the popular Greek Revival style, and a four-unit brick apartment building next door.

Tanner & Son Hardware

In January 1853, all was ready and the family moved off the farm and into the new house in town. In that frame house, the Tanners’ last children were born – twins Mary and Martha in April 1853 and son George in December 1854.

After moving into town, Tanner bought and sold real estate, dabbled in the grocery business, and in 1855 went into the hardware business.  His hardware store, located first on Broadway and then on River Street, prospered through four generations of the family, until 1979.

Tanner was moving up in the world, and soon he would be living in a home befitting his status.

New Digs For The Tanners

In 1857, Mr. Tanner purchased land at the northwest corner of Cedar Street and Oak Avenue, just a few blocks from his Walnut Street home.  There, on three-and-a-half large lots, construction began on the new Tanner House.

The Tanner boys and Tanner girls.

The family would move in at the end of the year — on Dec. 19, 1857, the date of son George’s third birthday — with the interior still not quite finished.  At the time, the Tanners had nine living children, ranging in age from 3 to 16 — three boys and six girls.

The new Tanner House was solid—its 18-inch-thick brick walls were supported on limestone foundation walls 27 inches thick. And it was grand — an imposing structure with basement, two floors and an attic, surmounted by a cupola.

The cupola, the overhanging eaves with projecting brackets, the decorative porches and balconies were all features of the Italianate style of architecture.

Very little is known about the construction of the house — just bits and pieces from the few documents that remain, along with family oral tradition.

The sturdy foundation is made up of massive limestone blocks cut from the Hoyt Quarry on south Broadway, located where a Burlington train depot would later stand. The fired clay brick was obtained from Charles H. Miner.

The brick construction work was done by mason Hiram Knickerbocker, who lived on Galena near Blackhawk. And the woodwork was done by carpenter George W. Campbell, who lived on Walnut (West New York), about a block from Tanner’s old house.

Much else remains shrouded in mystery. Was there an architect, and if so, who was he? There were a few architects in town.

One from that era was J.A. Hines, who had his offices on River Street and lived nearby at Galena and Chestnut. He advertised that he was “prepared to give Original Designs with working Draughts, Specifications, Bills of Material, for public Buildings or private Residences, in any of the different styles of Architecture.”

But it is impossible to say whether he, or any other local architect helped plan the Tanner House.

During this era, houses often were built without an architect, but with just a contractor/builder, utilizing an architectural pattern book. Such books provided builders and craftsmen (and architects, as well) with plans and elevation drawings that they might adapt to their own needs.

The Model Architect

One of the most influential pattern books of the era was The Model Architect by Samuel Sloan, published in two volumes, 1852-1853, and republished in editions in 1860, 1868, and 1873.

Sloan (1815-1884), based in Philadelphia, had begun his career as a carpenter and builder, learning every aspect of the trade. He eventually began to design his own works, soon becoming a lauded architect in his own right.

The Model Architect, the first of several publications by Sloan, detailed 56 residences and other structures, in various sizes and at various prices in all the popular styles of the day.

The book contained meticulous step-by-step instructions, outlining all materials, expenses, and building methods, along with floor plans, elevations, and detail drawings. Thousands of buildings across America were built using Sloan’s designs.

In becoming aware of Sloan’s work, we at the museum happened upon his Design #9: “An Ornamental Villa” in The Model Architect – and finally discovered what was clearly the inspiration for the Tanner House.

Sloan stated of his “Ornamental Villa” design, “The enriched appearance of this design is due almost entirely to the balconies, brackets and other ornaments about the eaves. The style of this is Swiss, and it therefore might be named, a villa ornamented in the Swiss style.”

Indeed, Swiss chalets traditionally featured projecting roofs with wide projecting eaves and brackets, balconies and other ornamentation.

Taking The High Ground

For location, Sloan recommended, “A high position, affording a view of the building from the distant landscape, is always desirable.”

At the time the Tanner House was built, it was indeed on high ground, high above the river that passed through the center of town.  And with not many other structures or trees around, it was viewable from quite a distance.

Samuel Sloan

With his design, Sloan noted, “There is one great objection to it, however. The ornamental appendages are expensive. But it is to be hoped that the time is, or is coming, when such near-sighted utilitarianism will give way to more liberal views of life, and that he who builds for himself a home, will aim beyond mere physical comfort.”

Tanner certainly did that – as the Weekly Republican had noted, “few, if any residences” in the area exhibited more “liberality or taste” than this one.

While admittedly expensive, there is no way to know the cost of the Tanner House. But Sloan’s plans, when originally published in 1852, called for a total expenditure of over $9,600 if followed exactly. The equivalent today would be about $350,500.

These designs were not always followed to the letter, but rather provided a base to work and adapt from.

The Tanners did take Sloan’s recommendation to paint the exterior brick walls; as a matter of fact, many mid-19th century brick buildings were painted immediately or soon after completion to protect poor quality “common” brick, or to imitate a different material, such as stone.

For the roof, however, while Sloan specified slate, the Tanners chose metal.

Decorative Elements

For the exterior decorative elements, the Tanners followed the patterns almost to the letter. In examining the Tanner House porches and the various styles of brackets under the eaves, side-by-side comparisons show them to be almost identical to Sloan’s detail drawings.

And, following Sloan’s drawings, the Tanners did include ornamental railings atop the front porch and decorative balconies projecting from the second floor front windows, but then failed to include them above for windows on the sides of the house.

They also omitted the balconies from the first floor windows, although wooden stubs that still project from the limestone foundation today seem to indicate that they were originally considered.

On the inside, the Tanners discarded Sloan’s floorplan for one completely different, although not unlike some of Sloan’s other designs.

William and Anna Tanner would raise their family in this house, and live out their lives there, both dying in the house — William in 1892 and Anna in 1900. Decades after their deaths, in 1936, their two surviving children, twin sisters already in advanced age, donated the house to the Aurora Historical Society to become a museum.

Besides the Tanner House, there probably were dozens of other examples of Sloan’s “Ornamental Villa” built in various regions of our nation.

The James B. Crosby house in Janesville is another example of an ornamental villa.

The closest one we have located is Janesville, WI — not built of brick, but a frame, or wood, version. What is today known as the Sutherland House was built in 1854 for banker James B. Crosby.

When built, it boasted balconies and decorative railings imitating Sloan’s plans. Much of that decorative material has been removed over the years, but even today it is recognizable as a version of Sloan’s “Ornamental Villa.”

Like Crosby’s house in Janesville, Tanner’s house in Aurora no longer looks exactly as it originally did. In the early 1900s, the wooden Italianate Style front porch was removed and replaced with a massive brick porch in the Prairie style.

And the decorative balustrades on the porch and balconies have been removed as well. But, also like the house in Janesville, the Tanner House can still be recognized as Samuel Sloan’s classic design.

Now, See It For Yourself

The Tanner House Museum opens for the season on May 29.  Open days will be Sundays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free.

For information on the Aurora Historical Society’s museums and activities, call 630-906-0650 or visit the website at www.aurorahistory.net.


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