Historical Society launches $2 million campaign to improve accessibility at History Museum on the Square


An elevator in the building addition at right will be one of many planned changes at the History Museum on the Square if the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County can raise $2 million to go with a $1.5 million state grant. | Artist's rendering courtesy of Klingner and Associates

QUINCY — Lynn Niewohner always knew the History Museum on the Square, 332 Maine, had accessibility problems since the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County accepted ownership of the building in 2015.

She won’t forget the moment when she decided something finally needed to be done.

“The last time we had a program there, that’s when I said we can’t do this anymore,” said Niewohner, president of the Historical Society. “Some old guy showed up, and we got him up (to the first floor) because we have a lift, but we couldn’t get him to the second floor — and that’s where the program was going to be. He wanted to go so badly, and he said, ‘Please, please, somebody help me.’ 

“Our maintenance guy picked him up and carried him up the steps, and (the old man) was fine with that. But he was a grown man, and he shouldn’t have to be carried up those steps. I said to myself, ‘No more. We’re not doing this again.’”

The Historical Society announced at a Tuesday morning press conference the start of a campaign to raise $2 million to build a 3,700-square-foot addition on the building’s west side. Plans calls for a ground-level entrance, elevator, accessible restrooms on the second floor, increased gathering space, new egress stairs and general ADA upgrades.

A roof replacement over the Ernest Wood addition and exterior repairs to address moisture issues also are proposed.

Accessibility challenges recently forced all Historical Society lectures to be temporarily moved to the Quincy Senior and Family Resource Center, 639 York. 

Guests must choose between two steep exterior stairways to enter the History Museum, because it has no ground floor entrance. The second-floor exhibit space can only be reached by climbing a 24-step grand staircase. Only two restrooms serve the entire building — one in the basement, one on the main floor — and neither is ADA-compliant. 

A $1.5 million construction grant from the Illinois Arts Council was approved in 2019. It was expected at the time to cover approximately 75 percent of the construction project, but the funds were not released to the Historical Society until 2023.

“At the time of our last full cost estimate in 2022, (the grant) covered only 59 percent (of the construction costs),” a press release from the Historical Society said.  

Historical Society members have been speaking with foundations, businesses, associations, clubs and people in 2024 to secure the funds required to complete the first phase of the project. Jack Freiburg, chair of the capital campaign fundraising committee, said during Tuesday’s announcement that a little more than $370,000 already has been raised.

“This strong historic structure we’re meeting at today is one of the most beloved and cherished in Quincy,” Freiburg said. “The Historical Society does want it to be properly maintained.”

Construction work is expected to begin this fall. All grant funds from the state must be spent by 2025. Opening the new addition in 2025 also aligns with Quincy’s bicentennial celebration. 

Niewohner says no improvements have been made to the building since 1929. She says the roof is leaking, the basement is leaking and the outside west wall has “millions of cracks” in it and also is leaking.

She said some of the improvements have been needed since the Historical Society took over ownership.

“(The building) sat for a few years, and then the Historical Society was like, ‘We can’t let that good ol’ building go,’” Niewohner said. “So we bought it and are trying to preserve it, but when we took it, we were like, ‘Oh, we’re going to have to do a bunch of work to this place.’ But we said, let’s just see what we can do because they don’t build them like that anymore.”

The museum is the home of many rotating exhibits that tell the stories of the people and events that have shaped this region. It also is the site of lectures, events and school tours. 

Niewohner said Adams County officials brought public records from the 1800s that were stored at the courthouse and stored them at the History Museum. However, the basement is filled with items left over from the architectural museum.

“I mean, how many people need 17 fireplace mantles? Not many,” Niewohner said. “We’re going to have a sale. We know where some of this stuff came from, but it doesn’t have any connection to the Historical Society, and we don’t need it. We need to get it out so we can put away the things that people are giving us that we do want to preserve for generations.”

The second phase of the campaign calls for moving the Lincoln Gallery, now in the Visitor’s Center at the John Wood Mansion, to the History Museum while renovating the remaining 980 square feet in the Ernest Wood addition.

The museum is one of the first gateways to the 43-county Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area and the first stop on the “Lincoln & The Civil War — Quincy Area” pre-planned itinerary. More special security and climate considerations are needed, since the gallery has many priceless Lincoln artifacts.

Among those artifacts are the hood and shackles worn by Mary Surratt when she was hanged in 1865. She was convicted of taking part in the conspiracy which led to the assassination of Lincoln the same year. The Historical Society also has a hat and a cane from Lincoln.

“We have a hermetically sealed controlled room (at the mansion), but it’s not big enough (to display items) because we have more stuff to show than we have room,” Niewohner said. “So we said, ‘Hey, why not? Let’s move it.’ So it’s all moving over here.”

The Romanesque Revival structure was completed in 1888 and served as the Quincy Public Library until 1974. The structure was sold in 1977 to a group of Quincy citizens and became the Gardner Museum of Architecture and Design. That museum closed in 2012, and the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County accepted both the ownership and assets of the building.

A launch party is scheduled for 5 p.m. April 26 at the History Museum. 

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