Skip to main content

U-High sweethearts buy Charles DeGarmo’s former home

Jessica '93 and Jason Chambers in front of their home, the former residence of Charles DeGarmo

Jessica '93 and Jason Chambers in front of their home, the former residence of Charles DeGarmo

“He who loves an old house, never loves in vain.”
—Isabel Fiske Conant, late 19th century author and poet

In December 1887, the Illinois School Journal reported that Professor Charles DeGarmo, for whom DeGarmo Hall was later named, had moved into a new home on Normal’s south side. In the months leading up to the home’s completion, the journal wrote that, “Mr. DeGarmo is erecting a beautiful residence on Broadway, about half a mile south of the Alton railroad. When completed it will be one of the most attractive places in town.”

On a snowy afternoon 125 years later, another Illinois State family, Jessica (Sparks) ’93 and Jason Chambers, climbed the century-old concrete steps to the landing of the home’s beautiful wraparound porch. Though the Chambers were not officially in the market for a new home, one of Jessica’s friends mentioned to her that a property off Broadway Street, with its coveted wraparound porch, was for sale.

The south side of the DeGarmo home's porch.

The south side of the DeGarmo home’s wraparound porch.

Perhaps the snow was blocking his view, but Jason said he did not immediately notice that his wife had fallen in love with the house.

Moments later, it became clear to him.

“I saw her standing in that library with a smile on her face, and I realized we were probably ‘done’ at that point,” said Jason, the McLean County state’s attorney. “It was like that room was built 125 years ago for her to be in it.”

Soon, Jason’s passion for the home matched Jessica’s, and their unified vision for restoring the home has been a testament to their imagination and dedication.

“The house originally was in really awful shape,” said Jessica, director of Illinois State’s Horticulture Center. “There was cracked or falling plaster in every room, wallpaper falling, no air conditioning, no insulation.”

“But,” added Jason, “like the previous owner told us at closing—the bones are good.”

Although the couple had a great deal of experience with home improvement, they said that due to the extent of work needed, and a desire to remain true to its historical nature, they brought in a contractor with extensive experience in restoration.

But there were still smaller projects for them to work on.

Door hardware from the DeGarmo home.

Door hardware from the DeGarmo home.

One Sunday afternoon, Jason took a closer look at the white hinges on an original door that had been temporarily removed. He was sure there was more to the hardware than the painted-over metal let on. After half an hour of meticulous scrubbing, the hinge’s original ornate brass once again saw the light of day. It was just one of the home’s many secrets that they have uncovered.

“Once I got in the house and saw the wood floors and saw the wood doors, and the hinges—I just thought there is such beauty in this house,” said Jessica. “I’m not sure we take the time to put that craftsmanship and that beauty into our houses today.”

During their first tour of the home, the only historical detail the Chambers were told about was its age. The truth of its roots came out near the closing, when they were told that the house was eligible for a historical designation.

A story of DeGarmo

These days, DeGarmo’s name is most often spoken in reference to the building that houses the College of Education and Department of Psychology—representing the two fields about which he was most passionate.

DeGarmo Home hardware hinge

The Chambers said the door hinges and hardware had been painted over multiple times.

DeGarmo’s first position at Illinois State was principal of the University’s model elementary school. The school was later named for Thomas Metcalf, the former University president who served as a professor during DeGarmo’s tenure. Following seven years as principal, DeGarmo left for Germany to study Herbartianism under Johannes Conrad, one of Johann Friedrich Herbart’s successors. This work led to his Ph.D. from the University of Halle in 1886.

He returned to Illinois State, bringing with him the ideas for an Americanized version of Herbartianism. DeGarmo, along with Frank and Charles McMurry, would help make the University the source of the Herbartianist movement in this country.

In Educating Illinois: Illinois State University, 1857-2007, John Freed writes that American Herbartianism helped revitalize teaching in elementary schools. Herbart’s five-step methodology for instruction was adapted for U.S. classrooms. The movement’s heyday was from 1895-1905, and among its lasting contributions to education were school field trips and the reading of poetry to enrich the curriculum.

From 1887-90, DeGarmo served as a professor of modern languages and reading. He would teach the principles of American Herbartianism and author many books, including Essentials of Method, which sold more than 33,000 copies, a considerably large print run for the time.

DeGarmo resigned from Illinois State to take a position as professor of psychology and pedagogy at the University of Illinois. He taught there for just one semester before becoming the president of Swarthmore College. DeGarmo spent the final 16 years of his career at Cornell University as a professor of the science and art of education. Following his retirement to Coconut Grove, Florida, he authored two books (one unpublished) and earned his Doctor of Laws in English (LL.D.) from Millikin University.

Perhaps prophetically, the Vidette published a farewell message in November 1887 that forecast the longevity of his impact on the University, as well as the University’s impact on him.

“Though his active connection with the Normal University ceases with the current year, we are sure that his long and close intimacy with its past will continue his interest in its welfare. He will not forget Normal, nor will Normal forget him,” the Vidette wrote.

In 1973, a century after his graduation from the University, DeGarmo Hall was “named in honor of an outstanding student, faculty member and administrator of Illinois State Normal University,” as stated by the College of Education brochure titled “Fiftieth Anniversary: Charles DeGarmo 1849-1934.”

DeGarmo’s home sweet home

DeGarmo was beloved by his colleagues and students alike, and this was made evident following his announcement to move to the University of Illinois. As reported by the Vidette in December 1887, his porch became the setting of a unique send-off from his students:

At about 7:30 O’clock, Thursday evening, December 11th, when a chilling wind was reminding one of winter, there assembled, one by one or two by two, a merry company otherwise known as a psychology class, on the east steps of the University, from which they marched en masse to besiege the home of their beloved teacher, Prof. DeGarmo. Having quietly gathered on the veranda they suddenly burst forth in the song, ‘The Watch on the Rhine,’ chosen by the singers in honor of him whose attachment to Germany and German Teachings is so well known. The song having ended, the doors opened, and the besiegers took possession both of the house and of its innocent master, who at first attempted to provide chairs for them as they entered, but being baffled by numbers, he paused to collect himself, and recognizing his class, began to ask a few psychological questions.

According to The Legacy: A Survey of the Historical Architecture of the Town of Normal (1990), DeGarmo’s house, like many of the homes built on Broadway, was a Queen Anne style residence. The land belonged to businessmen Kersey and Jesse Fell, the latter of whom was instrumental in founding the University.

The appeal for those who lived on Broadway and Fell streets was proximity to the Normal Line street car that ran along the neighborhood streets and its relative quietness. The area was considered semi-rural and quite a different environment from busy and smoke-laden Bloomington, where steam engines ran and coal and wood furnaces burned all day.

A new chapter off Broadway

The banister and stairs at the entryway of the DeGarmo home.

The banister and stairs located in the entryway of the home.

DeGarmo’s history at Illinois State, especially with the Laboratory Schools, is of great significance to the Chambers; the couple met while students at University High School.

“U-High was a big part of us. When I think back about U-High … I think about cross-country and track and my wife,” said Jason.

The Chambers say they have no plans for moving from their Broadway home and are thrilled their kids, who are currently enrolled at Metcalf, will go on to U-High. Albeit tongue-in-cheek, Jessica jokes that she wants to be buried in the home’s backyard.

The first phase of the restoration work was completed in mid-June, and the Chambers have since moved in their new home.  But the couple says they still hope to find a few more pleasant surprises and are always ready to restore a hinge or save a window.

The home remains a symbol of the legacy of educator preparation at Illinois State left by its first owner. Just as importantly, Jason said that it maintains the Chamber family’s connection to their own history, and to each other.

“We like the fact that this house represents not only a part of our past, but going forward too,” he said.