Today, more than 1,000 of Galena’s 19th-century buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places, making about 85% of the city a natural historic district
Recycling is something we think of as a modern-day effort, but it’s been around as a concept for quite some time. Take 19th-century architecture, for example. It was mostly a recycling of earlier styles.
When we think of the period, we see revivals of Gothic, Greek, and Renaissance designs, fused with contemporary materials and methods. It’s an ode to nostalgia, and you’ll see amazing examples of 19th-century architecture in Galena.
Style meets substance
If you had to pick only two characteristics, to sum up, 19th-century architecture, it would have to be the use of new materials and building methods and the generous mixture of a variety of earlier historical styles. Many historians refer to the 19th-century architectural style as “eclecticism.”
The architectural designers of the time generally held the belief that it was their responsibility to sustain the traditional styles of those who had come before them. Businesses and public buildings took on elements from earlier styles to communicate authority. Architects borrowed from the past wherever it seemed appropriate. While it might have been a time of little originality, the combination of historical architectural styles did create new looks.
While earlier eras were being recycled, the buildings themselves were being crafted from new materials that were created by the growing need to feed industry. Large buildings like hotels and hospitals were built using more cast iron and steel, as well as ferrous building materials.
Building for the new class
Housing underwent a massive change in its architectural approach during this time. This was mainly due to architects being asked to partner in home construction. Previously, housing was mostly of a cottage style, created by local carpenters and masons without any architectural plans.
As the new middle class was forming, business professionals, merchants, and manufacturers found themselves with the means to have homes built, and their only sources for inspiration were the great houses of the landed gentry.
While they didn’t want or need something on that scale, they certainly didn’t mind the architectural aesthetics. Nineteenth-century architecture still remained mostly for the middle and upper classes, but new materials and fast-growing populations ushered in a vertical emphasis for buildings. This was a time when skyscraper design came into its own.
Represented in Galena
Galena has an amazing collection of 19th-century architecture lining its downtown streets. You’ll see mansions that look as if they were transported from Italy and storefronts with Federal-style columns. As a result, Galena is often called the “outdoor museum of the Victorian Midwest.” Many of the city’s one million-plus annual visitors come to see the architecture.
The country’s first mineral rush helped to grow Galena into a bustling Mississippi river port, and the population actually surpassed that of Chicago during the 1830s. The city’s fortunes reversed in the late 19th century as lead lost its supremacy to steel, and steamboats were replaced by locomotives. Many of the buildings in the city—those which showed off the best elements of 19th-century architecture—were abandoned and boarded up.
The 1970s saw a resurgence in interest in Galena, as Chicago-area artists and small business owners purchased and rehabilitated the buildings that lined the city’s downtown streets. Soon, many of the Federal-style buildings reopened as art galleries and small shops.
Today, more than 1,000 of Galena’s 19th-century buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places, making about 85% of the city a natural historic district.
The beautiful examples of 19th-century architecture continue on past Galena’s Main Street. Spectacular mansions built by steamboat captains and my owners are perched on the steep bluffs overlooking the Galena River. Most were built between 1840 and 1890, combining beautiful examples of the eclectic styles making up 19th century Greek Revival architecture.