Hello friends! Today, we have an interview with the lovely Randi and Dave Howell, owners of the beautiful Duncan Manor, an amazing home in our area. For years this home has gone from owner to owner, and it is always sad to see it doing that. That is why it is just so wonderful to see the house in really caring hands! We were able to get some lovely product photos here, but the house is just so fantastic it was really just an excuse to see the place.
L: Who/what do you consider to be your biggest style influencers?
R+D:Frank Lloyd Wright is definitely someone Dave and I both draw inspiration from; the man was a creative genius. His organic architecture and the harmonies he created between his structures and their environments are things to be revered. He didn’t just build houses, he thought about the entire picture and developed livable works of art that continue to be awe-inspiring. We hope to create an environment in and around Duncan Manor that will be enjoyed and respected. We both tend to be fairly eclectic and we pull from so many different eras. We want to stay true to the house and the architecture, but we don’t want it to be a museum. We let our own style guide our choices while gaining inspiration by researching Italianate homes from the same era.
L: Any odd historic facts?
R+D:I’m not sure how odd it is, but interesting and unique! William Duncan brought with him to Illinois, his knowledge of shorthorn cattle. He developed the cattle breeding industry in McLean County and became well-known for it. He had some of the top specimens in the area. He brought cattle from England and France to breed. He even had a stockyard off the railroad tracks. A stop along the Chicago Alton Railway was created at Duncan Manor for customers buying or selling shorthorn cattle from Mr. Duncan. When he built Duncan Manor, it was something he wanted people to notice. We think he accomplished his goal and then some. People are to this day craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the house when they drive by on Rt. 66 or I-55. In fact, I remember doing just that as a little girl when we would drive up to Chicago for the weekend.
L:What is your favorite room in the house?
R+D:It is really hard to pick just one! I would have to say, at the moment, it’s a fight between the parlor and the bathroom because they are both finished. 😉 Probably the parlor. It is a unique and special space and it is fairly amazing that the majority of the original elements are intact. The room has original plaster crown molding and a beautiful plaster medallion in the center of the ceiling. The house sat empty for years and windows had been busted out, so it was a bit of miracle they weren’t more deteriorated. Not only that, but the original slate fireplace is the only one in the house that has never been painted over. When we chose paint and wallpaper for the room, we chose those which we believed would showcase the original elements.
L: Any interesting history about the manor you can share?
R+D:If you ask some of the locals, this house was part of the Underground Railroad and Mr. William Duncan kept slaves chained in the basement. Two rumors, that with a little research, are easily disproved. Not everyone likes to believe that these are only rumors because they have been just that for decades! We even had a few people tell us that their teacher’s taught them those stories in history class. First of all, the two rumors contradict one another. Secondly, William Duncan didn’t buy the property until December of 1865, so he would not have began construction until at least the Spring of 1866…after the Civil War. He did move to Towanda from Clark County, Kentucky in 1863 where he owned slaves. But, any human ownership ended when he made the trip to Illinois.
L: What is your favorite thing about living in an old home?
R+D: There’s a comforting sense of security living in a house that has stood the test of time. Walking through rooms that were created and lived in by someone 150 years ago is something to be appreciated. The new houses of today can never compare to the quality, character, and thoughtfulness that went into designing old homes. You can feel the love, time, and effort and that feeling can’t be replicated.
L: how did you find the house?
R+D: It feels like the house found us; that is the easiest way to explain it. 🙂 We came across the house via a magical website, www.circaoldhouses.com, a site dedicated to finding owners for lovely and lonely old homes. Duncan Manor was one that jumped out at us. Although we were not looking for anything this size. We knew we wanted a house to restore together, but we were thinking on a much smaller scale. We had the opportunity to fly to Illinois a few weeks after we came across the manor online. This was May of 2014. We made an appointment to view it, with no other intentions. In the next month, the price progressively kept dropping, until we could no longer deny her. I gave notice to my jobs, Dave finished up classes, we sold what we could, packed up our lives in Denver, and arrived at the manor at 2 am on July 6th.
L:How did you start/decide what you wanted the rooms to feel like/your favorite resources?
R+D: Duncan Manor was a blank slate when we arrived. There was no electricity, HVAC, plumbing, or water. For us, this was a beautiful thing because there were no standards set. There are only a handful of pictures that we have come across showing the house’s interior and they are all from later in life. So we have no idea what design elements existed other than what remains. We take our time, and we draw ideas, all the time. Those ideas are ever-evolving. I think we have reworked the kitchen / bathroom design at least 5 different times trying to get it right, and we are almost there! Dave and I are constantly going back and forth with our thoughts and input on what will work and what won’t work until we agree on something. Sometimes its immediate, but usually it takes awhile. 🙂 What’s nice is we have no reason to rush, other than for our own comfort’s sake. Our end goal is to create a space that is unique and inviting. We want anyone that comes through the house to feel at home. We do not use any one specific source. We do enjoy This Old House and we pull a lot of inspiration from Pinterest, Houzz, and Instagram. It’s amazing, Instagram has its own community of people saving old houses and each one has their own story and style. We research online for elements and we visit The Old House Society in Bloomington as well as Peoria Architectural Salvage fairly often. Between the local salvage shops and the historic salvage options Chicago and St. Louis offer, we have quite a bit to work with. Not only that, people are constantly donating to the manor. We have one friend from the Naperville area who brought us two truckloads of antique woodwork and paneling that he had salvaged over the past 30 years. We have another good friend who is always going to estate sales and auctions and bringing us treasures from sales. We try to use what is given to us as much as possible! We feel re-purposing is key in our restoration process.
L:Do you have any funny restoration stories? (we have a special curiosity for this since we have a few of our own!)
R+D:The first room we renovated was a bathroom on the second floor. Originally it was just a storage room in the servant’s quarters. When we finally decided on the floor tile, I took measurements and made the order. Somewhere along the way I made a mistake and we only ended up getting enough tile for half the room! We couldn’t really afford to order more tile, so we started brainstorming. We ended up deciding to build a platform for the bathtub across the back half of the bathroom. We did this using wood from our barn. When I started laying out the mosaic tile, I ended up rearranging them at least 4 different times before I developed the current pattern. The tiles came in big squares with plastic backing holding them all together. To create the pattern I was envisioning, I had to cut the backing to separate the tiles in to individual pieces. Dave didn’t realize this until he started laying the tile. Long story short, it wasn’t a pretty experience, but at least the end result is!
L:What are your future plans for the house?
R+D:Our end goal for the manor is to create an environment that we can share with the community and anyone passing through. We want it to be a place that everyone can be relaxed, be creative, and be themselves. We have been given an opportunity to help this house evolve when it really hasn’t been given a good chance in all it’s 150 years. People enjoy being here, and we plan to give everyone more chances to visit through regular tours, a tea room, cooking classes, community gardens, live music, and rental opportunities for events, etc.
Thank you Dave and Randi for the awesome interview and photo shoot! I love learning more about the house after all these years of being one of the head-craners 🙂
Thank you, friend, for reading!