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Fate of the Staley Pump House and the role of the Decatur City Council

A century after it was built, the Staley Pump House may be demolished later this year. In October 2019, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a Memorandum of Agreement associated with an application from Tate & Lyle (the owners of the structure) seeking approval to demolish the Staley Pump House and Club House. 

Since it was announced that the Pump House may be demolished, a new organization has been formed, Save the Pump House, and I have received a significant amount of correspondence from individuals in Decatur and throughout the country expressing their opposition to the demolition. There are very few issues for which I have received more correspondence.

The city council plays a limited role in these types of decisions. The Staley Pump House is privately owned and thus, is a decision for the building’s owner to make. With that said, I strongly encourage dialogue between Tate & Lyle and the Save the Pump House organization as there may be a viable pathway to preservation that is beneficial to all parties. I also encourage individuals to contact the citizen-led Save the Pump House organization for more information. 

While the city council’s role is limited, city employees may have played some role in the discussions regarding demolition of the Pump House. According to the minutes of the October 16, 2019 meeting of the Historical and Architectural Sites Commission, a representative from Tate & Lyle indicated that it was the city that approached the company about demolition due to safety concerns such as concrete dropping from the structure. The representative also indicated that they were not aware of anything of historical importance that happened at the Pump House.

While there may be current safety concerns, it does not appear that any of the safety concerns cannot be mitigated through rehabilitation of the Pump House. According to a report sent to the city council in November 2019 by Stephen Kelly, a Historic Preservation Specialist, “The Staley Pump House could easily be rehabilitated using simple and well-known construction techniques.”

Furthermore, the Staley Pump House has significant historical and architectural importance. Over the past 100 years Decatur has become a global agribusiness leader, and the prosperity of the city is intertwined with Lake Decatur and its Pump House. Moreover, the second floor of the Pump House served as an employee’s clubhouse where parties, dances, and weddings took place and so many fond memories were forged. 

The structure has architectural significance, and according to Stephen Kelly, “The Staley Pump House is an early and rather fine example of reinforced concrete used to create architectural expression.” Other Illinois examples include Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple, Daniel Burnham designed DuSable Museum of African American History, and the 63rd Street Beach House. All three buildings are National Historic Landmarks and such a designation could also be bestowed on the Staley Pump House. 

From my perspective, even if the Staley Pump House is never fully restored and I am never able to enjoy attending a social gathering as was done in the past, a structurally safe building with an improved exterior supported by private dollars is better than no Pump House at all. Like the Transfer House which is a symbol of Decatur and its downtown, there may be no better symbol of Lake Decatur and the prosperity that this water source has brought than the Staley Pump House.

Horn for Decatur
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