MONMOUTH, Ill. — Many of Monmouth’s large Victorian homes were converted to apartment houses in the 20th century, when they became too expensive to maintain as single-family homes — especially when servants became too expensive for the average family’s budget. But one house was so massive that it was converted to apartments well before the turn of the 20th century.
Still standing 154 years after its construction and still in use as apartments is the 25-room frame house at 313 East Broadway. It was built in 1866 by John Babcock — a member of one of Monmouth’s early merchant families, whose several homes once dominated the Broadway neighborhood just east of the Public Square.
Designed in the fashionable Italian Villa style of the post-Civil War period, Babcock would likely not recognize his former home if he could see it today. Long gone are an imposing three-story tower, bracketed cornices and wide porticoes, while the original clapboard siding has been hiding under cedar shingles for nearly a century. But the current five apartments in the building still offer testimony to the size of the original household. Babcock and his wife, Lorinda, had three sons, a daughter, three servants and a boarder who clerked in Babcock’s store.
John Babcock came to Monmouth at age 16 from Wales, Mass., with his parents and four siblings. His father, Elijah Coddington (E.C.) Babcock, had entered the mercantile business there at age 14 and had eventually accumulated enough wealth to purchase the store. In 1842, John’s father and his uncle, George Babcock, traveled by boat to St. Louis, seeking new business opportunities in the west. Told there were good prospects for a merchant in west-central Illinois, they traveled up the river to Oquawka, but were disappointed with what they found there and decided to look instead at Monmouth.
Arriving at Monmouth, the brothers rented a room in a building owned by then-mayor Daniel McNeil on the site of the current city hall, eventually purchasing the building and beginning what would become a thriving general merchandise business (with George as a silent partner). In 1851, George retired from the business, and E. C.’s two sons, John and Draper, became partners in the store. George and E. C. had homes at 206 and 303 East Broadway, respectively. Draper Babcock’s residence stood at 320 East Broadway.
All of the Babcocks were devout Christians and supporters of the temperance movement. George’s wife was a charter member of the local Woman’s Christian Temperance Movement chapter and WCTU founder Frances Willard was a frequent visitor at Draper’s home.
E.C. Babcock retired in 1869, selling his interest in the store to son John, as Draper was then pursuing other business projects. A devastating fire that wiped out the east side of the Public Square on May 9, 1871, leveled the Babcock store, but John began rebuilding it weeks later. By 1874, Babcock started visiting Colorado for health problems and decided to sell the store to the Monmouth National Bank, which erected its new quarters on the site. In 1875, Babcock decided to permanently move to Colorado and sold his Broadway home to John N. Bruen, a native of New Jersey who in 1844 came to Henderson County, eventually becoming a prominent cattle dealer.
The son of a New Jersey bootmaker, Bruen had an uncle named Thomas Gould who owned 160 acres of unimproved land near Gladstone. Gould proposed that if Bruen came west and farmed half of it for five years, he would give him the 80 acres. At age 18, Bruen traded a squirrel rifle for fence rails and a silver watch for assistance with breaking the prairie. From 1844 until 1875, he expanded his land holdings to 600 acres in Illinois and 5,000 acres in Iowa, on which he raised 1,000 head of cattle.
Bruen’s father died in New Jersey in 1854, and a few years later his mother and siblings came to visit. They enjoyed the trip so much that they decided to relocate to Illinois about 1862. Among the family was his youngest sister, Adaline. She would enroll in Monmouth College in the fall of 1866 and the following spring become one of the founders of I.C. Sorosis, the precursor to Pi Beta Phi. Years later, as Ada Bruen Grier, she would give birth to the future fifth president of Monmouth College, James Harper Grier.
In 1875, John Bruen moved into the former Babcock house with his wife, Mary, his daughter, Ida, and a servant. A director of Monmouth’s ill-fated First National Bank, he was called in 1884 to Chicago to appear before a federal grand jury investigating the failure of the bank. Only 59 years old, he contracted pneumonia on the trip and died a few days later.
The following year, Bruen’s widow sold the property to Mr. and Mrs. George Baldwin for $5,500, who decided to convert it to a boarding house. The Baldwins, who had run the nearby Baldwin House hotel, disposed of that property to George’s brother James. Their parents, hotel founders Hiram and Maria Baldwin, also among the residents of the new boarding house, as was John Bruen’s widow.
In 1939, lumber dealer John Diffenbaugh and his wife, Mary Louise, who lived next door to the west, purchased and renovated the apartment house, but soon World War II intervened. As Monmouth College contracted with the Navy to host a preflight cadet unit in 1942, it had moved its female students off campus — primarily to fraternity houses that had been vacated by male students enlisting in the service. But when the school year was about to begin in 1943, the college realized it had more female students than it could house. The administration made arrangements with the Diffenbaughs to purchase the property for $11,000 and quickly convert it to a residence hall that would house 31 women.
Each of the house’s four apartments had five rooms and a bath. The four kitchens were converted to study rooms, and the basement, which previously housed the caretaker, was turned into a kitchen and dining hall that sat 70. (The women who lived in Van Gundy Hall at 602 East Broadway and 10 male students joined the residents for meals.)
The college named the house Bruen Hall, despite the fact that John N. Bruen had been dead for 60 years and several owners had held deed to the property in the ensuing years. Although the college Senate minutes do not specify the source of the name, it seems reasonable to assume that it was suggested by then-college president James Harper Grier, who was John Bruen’s nephew. Perhaps he also wanted to honor his mother, Ada Bruen Grier, the founder of Pi Phi.
From the outset, the college announced that Bruen Hall would only be used temporarily, so when the women moved back into dormitories in the fall of 1945, the property was sold to Mr. and Mrs. George Howard. In 1964, it became the Whiteman Apartments, as Wendell and Lucille Whiteman purchased the house and lived there for a time, before it was sold to Richard Crockett in 1980. It has gone through several more hands in recent years.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.