MONMOUTH, Ill. — Although Monmouth was founded in 1831, it wasn’t until after the Civil War that the city was finally graced by an architect-designed residence. In 1867, Monmouth capitalist and judge Ivory Quinby engaged the services of Chicago architect John C. Cochrane, whose design for the new Illinois State Capitol would be selected the following year. Now the home of Monmouth College presidents, Quinby’s elegant home today graces the highest point in town.
Another renowned architect, Peoria’s Herbert E. Hewitt, in 1913 designed the Tudor-style mansion of prominent Monmouth attorney John Burroughs Brown at 700 East Broadway, which today houses the Monmouth College admission department.
Throughout much of the 19th century, custom-designed homes were considered a luxury, available only to the wealthy, and local carpenters generally relied on pattern books, which became widely available in the 1840s when architects such as Alexander Jackson Davis and Andrew Jackson Downing began publishing books of Victorian home designs.
By the 1890s, though, Monmouth had become a thriving industrial center, and demand rose for upper-middle class residences that weren’t mansions but were custom-designed to suit a family’s individual needs and also displayed taste and elegance. There was a new niche to be filled and beginning about 1895, a talented young architect stepped up to fill the void.
A native of New Hampshire, 26-year-old Albert Gallatin Choate initially set up bachelor quarters and his studio on the second floor of the Republican building at 209 South Main, but soon moved to an office over the Second National Bank building at 105 East Broadway. A building boom in Monmouth kept him extremely busy — so much so that in 1897 he began training an apprentice.
Choate, who advertised as “The only qualified Architect in the city,” specialized not only in residences but also churches — particularly country churches that weren’t overly elaborate but handsome and functional. Among his many area commissions were the 9th Avenue U.P. Church (later Jamieson Center), Kirkwood U.P. Church, Fall Creek Methodist Church, Reed Methodist Church, Eleanor Mission Chapel and Abingdon Methodist Church. He also designed churches as far away as Hoopeston, Illinois, and College Springs, Iowa.
Other public buildings designed by Choate included Monmouth’s Shultz Building at 218–220 South Main, which originally housed the post office, and Biggsville High School. In many cases, Choate also served as the building superintendent, a former term for contractor.
Many of Choate’s fine Queen Anne-style homes can still be found in Monmouth. Among them are residences built for DeWitt Phelps at 1002 East Broadway (now Monmouth College’s Weeks House), Mayor W. A. Sawyer at 115 South B St., George Pillsbury at 513 West Broadway, Joseph C. Irvine at 812 West Broadway, Augusta Norcross at 509 East First Ave., W.H. Frantz at 309 North Second St., Henry M. Wright at 402 North Second St. and Moses Zimmerman at 320 North Third St.
Choate’s success as an architect was achieved despite a difficult childhood. Born in Enfield, New Hampshire, in 1868, his father died when he was 3, leaving his pregnant 42-year-old mother, Hannah, to raise eight children and run the family farm.
In 1876, Hannah made her way to western Illinois, where relatives lived in the Rozetta neighborhood of Henderson County. She was accompanied by 8-year-old Albert and four of his siblings: 21-year-old George, 16-year-old Mary, 10-year-old Sidney and 5-year-old Nellie. Hannah became a servant for a farm family, while each of her children except Nellie was placed as a servant with other farm families.
In 1880, Albert’s sister Mary enrolled in the music department of Monmouth College and in 1882 married farmer Robert A. Allen of Little York. Albert’s mother, Hannah, was remarried the following year — to widowed farmer Robert C. Stewart of Little York. Older brother George settled in Monmouth, running a hay baling business.
After their marriage, Hannah and her new husband moved to Kirkwood, along with Albert and Nellie. In 1891, at 23, Albert was sent to the New Hampton Literacy and Biblical Institution, a boarding school in New Hampshire. He next appears in an 1894 Monmouth College catalog, listed as a senior in the preparatory department, and that year’s Monmouth annual notes that he took first place in the Philo literary society’s declamation contest.
Choate would have turned 26 during that one year he was enrolled at Monmouth, but he did not receive a degree. If he hung out his shingle as an architect around 1895, the question of where he received his architectural training arises. Most likely, he learned the trade as an apprentice, but no record seems to exist of when or where.
In July 1897, Choate made a brief return trip to New Hampshire, where he married Bertha Scribner, the daughter of a Baptist minister, whom he had possibly met while attending school at New Hampton. The couple settled in Monmouth in a home at 420 East Clinton Ave., where they had the first of four children.
About 1903, the Choates moved to Proviso Township in Cook County, where Albert lived the rest of his life, working as a contractor in Melrose Park. He had apparently quit the architecture profession, which may be due to the fact that in 1897 Illinois became the first state to require architects to be licensed. He died in 1939 at the age of 71 and his ashes were interred in Chicago’s Acacia Cemetery.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 38 years.