Townspeople help bankrupt college begin a new life

Picture this: It's fall of 1980, in a tension-packed auction room. The gavel slams down for the last time: ''Sold for $170,000 to RCA.''

What's this? Were art and antiques going at bargain prices to huge recording companies? Not exactly. The RCA is the Restoration College Association of Mount Carroll, Ill., and it had just bought, well, a college. Through a lot of hard work, that college has now become the Campbell Center for Historic Preservation Studies.

It wasn't just any college -- it was Shimer, the former crown jewel that had become the main emergency of the little town. The college had been losing students over the years until it was down to about 30. Finally, it went bankrupt. What was left was a set of neat but frayed Georgian brick buildings from the turn of the century on the high ground on the way into town -- and the hard feelings of a lot of townspeople, who had relied on income from students and faculty and the 100 jobs the college had provided.

They might have been left with an empty campus and hard feelings if it hadn't been for Ralph Kennedy, a furniture restorer with big ideas. He had always wished there were better-trained people to help him in his workshop. Why not start a school that taught restoration techniques? He called Carolyn Johnson, director of the Chicago Landmarks Preservation Council.

Mr. Kennedy didn't realize what a good idea it was. ''It was nothing but a lightbulb,'' Mrs. Johnson says.

And a lightbulb whose time had come. Mrs. Johnson says there is need for a place professionals can come for a few days to brush up on their technique. There are two three-year restoration schools, one run by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and one at Winterthur, a historic home in Delaware. But a workshop-type arrangement similar to what Kennedy planned had just shut down because it had no facility. And the college facility needed restoration work -- a perfect lab for the classes.

The lightbulb went on just before Labor Day and the auction was to be held Oct. 6. So Kennedy quickly formed the Restoration College Association, made up not of preservationists but of locals anxious to keep the college from becoming boarded-up. ''Go by on the highway and you're going to see this place one way or the other,'' says Robert Richardson, director of the curriculum development committee and a former Shimer College professor.

For the auction, the campus had been divided into 14 parcels; locals bid on each to keep it from being split up. It was then auctioned off as one unit and when the gavel went down on the final bid, the RCA found itself the proud owner of a college campus.

It was a steal at $170,000, but a barely affordable one for the town of 1,936 . Samuel J. Campbell, a local philanthropist who had been on the board of Shimer College, helped with the down payment. To prove their ability to pay the rest, the 14 townspeople guaranteed they could pay for each of the parcels. ''Then ensued the massive drive to raise the rest of the money and get these guys off the hook,'' says Kennedy. ''We did.'' Mr. Campbell gave another $90, 000, others put in $35,000, and the Campbell Center is paying for the rest.

Next, Kennedy invited leading lights from the preservation community to a conference that November. Local women from a chapter of Questers, an organization to further preservation education, lent china, silverware, candlesticks, and drapes, cleaned a dining room on campus, and cooked a banquet. Eliot Carroll, assistant architect to the Capital in Washington, D.C., said: ''I've come to Mount Carroll with great skepticism. But . . . I'm leaving with great optimism and enthusiasm.''

A curriculum committee of top preservationists was formed, and they have hired leaders in the various fields to come teach for a few days. This attracts serious students to workshops, held from May through November. The center is not for the hobbyist, says Sara Chase of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, and a curriculum committee member.

Instead, she says, it can help to ''people who majored in English and suddenly find themselves as the site administrator for the Lincoln Museum in southern Illinois . . .'' And Carolyn Johnson also expects a modest influx of owners of historic homes.

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