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Restoration comes home for renowned preservationist

By Marilyn HoffmanStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 20, 1982



Elsah, Ill.

What does a man who has written the ''definitive history'' of the preservation movement in the United States do about his own 19th-century Midwestern village and the brick-and-frame 1858 house he calls home?

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If that man is Dr. Charles R. Hosmer Jr., of Elsah, he goes avidly about preserving them. And he does so with the kind of enthusiasm that fires other people into revitalizing action as well.

Chuck Hosmer, as his friends call him, is an apostle of preservation who obviously practices what he preaches. Elsah, his village, has a population of 160 - or 900 if you count the students and faculty of nearby Principia College, where he is a professor of history.

In the brief span of a dozen years, Dr. Hosmer and other faculty members and friends have literally dusted off this unique little cluster of unassuming stone , brick, and frame houses on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, rescuing the town from its slow slide into history.

''In 1970,'' the professor recalls, ''Elsah looked pretty awful. Eddie Keller had closed the only grocery store in town. The college had closed the Village Inn, and many of the buildings were neglected and ramshackle in appearance. But within a year, four faculty members had bought houses and commenced to restore them. The college was taking renewed interest in the village at its front door, and the current flowering of tiny Elsah had begun.''

In 197l Dr. Hosmer helped form the Historic Elsah Foundation, draft a historic-zoning ordinance, and create a zoning board. In 1973, while he was serving on the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Committee, the nomination of Elsah (which he helped formulate and send to Washington, D.C.) earned it a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. A historic district was then created, so that this village - which once throbbed with people off the river boats, farmers, and hardworking townspeople - would be infused with new meaning.

In ''Elsah: A Historic Guidebook,'' which Dr. Hosmer and Prof. Paul O. Williams researched and wrote for visitors who wished to take walking tours of the village, the authors make this statement:

''Occasionally one finds a town in which the prevailing flavor is of the past. Elsah is such a town. Almost all of a piece, it gives a strong hint of the setting of 19th-century life along the river. Mills, warehouses, river shipping, two railroads, and numerous local businesses and throngs of wheat farmers - all have disappeared. But many of the houses and stores remain, and it is they which make coming to Elsah like stepping back in time.''

''I did not truly value Elsah and its place in history until Paul Williams and I began our research for the guidebook,'' Dr. Hosmer recalls. ''We began with Elsah cemetery, then tackled the courthouse. Then Mr. Williams began to study all the old photographs of Elsah, and I began to go through old newspaper and census reports and deeds. Our research awakened in both of us a curiosity and a great appreciation for what was all around us. Such research is an enriching but never-ending process. We are now into the fourth updated edition of our guidebook. New material about our Greek Revival, Franco-American, and Gothic Revival buildings and the families who lived in them keeps coming to light.''