Rebuilding Community with Schuyler County Architecture Foundation

Volunteers who helped with the Ray House renovation. (Photo courtesy of Facebook @Schuylerarchitecture)

Ray House with Volunteers scaleed

By Hannah Kucharzak

Read Time 4 minutes
October 24, 2023

Situated in downtown Rushville, Illinois, a town of around 3,000 residents, lies the Schuyler County Architecture Foundation. The Foundation is a key driver in not only preserving the integrity of historic town buildings that date back to the mid-19th century, but they’re also making concerted efforts to engage present-day residents in community-building and education.

Illinois Humanities awarded the Schuyler County Architecture Foundation a Foreground Rural Initiative Grant of $10,000 in recognition of their critical work to strengthen the cultural infrastructure within Schuyler County and beyond.

Among their many initiatives—such as protecting Shiloh Church, as well as reissuing a publication of Badger Book, an illustrated compendium of over 100 architectural triumphs across the county—the Schuyler County Architecture Foundation is working to renovate the Ray House, a building originally constructed as a cabin in 1850 that hosted a speech by President Lincoln a few years later. Illinois Humanities sat down with Schuyler Isley, Founder and President of the Schuyler County Architecture Foundation, to talk about how Ray House’s past plays a role in informing its bright future.

The Conversation with Schuyler Isley

Tell us a little bit about the Schuyler County Architecture Foundation and the history of the Ray House.

The Ray House is located in Rushville, Illinois. It was first built as a cabin in 1850 and later expanded twice. 

It is notable as a well-documented location of a Lincoln speech in 1858 and also for its rich local history. 

The home’s namesake, William H. Ray, was a local entrepreneur and banker who served in the U.S. Senate from 1872-1874. 

He was also instrumental in the early development of Rushville. Architecturally, it is a unique early blend of Italianate and Gothic Revival elements. 

A majority of the home’s original finishes remain intact. 

SCAF Ray House 3 Outside

The Ray House. Follow along with the renovation in the Simply Monumental YouTube series by the Schuyler County Architecture Foundation.

The primary focus of your Foreground Rural Initiative grant is to fund the renovation of the Ray House. What do you envision for the future of the building?

Upon completion, the Ray House will be a Lincoln themed tea-room and event venue for small groups—bridal or baby showers or small family gatherings on weekends (which will create a revenue stream for the home's maintenance and utilities). 

The upper floors will house offices, collaborative space, a conference room, and a business center for Schuyler County's non-profit organizations. 

In addition, the Ray House will be an education center for the historic architecture of Schuyler County with materials available for research on the historic homes and buildings in Schuyler County. 

It will also serve as a "Visitor's Center" and "first stop" for out-of-town guests. 

Finally, the Ray House will serve as host to educational events for the public (ages 7+) about Schuyler County’s historic places and building techniques.

SCAF artistic renderings of proposed conference space scaled

What are the biggest challenges that your community is facing right now? 

That’s a great question! Schuyler County will be celebrating its 200th birthday in 2025. And, as with many other rural communities, our biggest challenges are centered around long-term population decline. The county’s population has fallen by 8.5% over the last 10 years. Central to this problem is the issue that Rushville is land-locked by rich farm ground, and many family farmers are hesitant to sell that land for building sites, so our housing supply is limited. Construction costs are also astronomical right now, which makes the possibility of new housing even more challenging.

We have an amazing, vital community with so many resources—we want to ensure it will remain intact for the next 200 years with steady, sustainable population growth.

Tell us about a moment when you realized your organization was making a difference.

Another wonderful question! 

When people started coming up to me in the grocery store and on the street and saying, “I love what you’re doing with the Ray House,” I knew we were getting some traction. 

Five years later, we see that people are frequently mentioning not just the Ray House, but they are asking questions about historic places in Schuyler County that are special to them. 

We’re currently partnering with a small group that is stabilizing a small historic church in rural Schuyler County. 

We’re acting as a fiscal agent on their project and providing them with fundraising and marketing guidance to get the word out about their project. 

This really has been a big win and exemplifies the community model we’ve been working toward.

SCAF Ray House 2 Inside

Anything else you’d like to share? 

Thank you so much for highlighting our organization and giving other small communities the inspiration to engage in similar work to save their historic places! 

Illinois Humanities is honored to be a part of the Schuyler County Architecture Foundation’s history. If you’d like to learn more about their ongoing work of preserving their county’s most cherished buildings, check out their website to learn about volunteer opportunities and more.

Our Foreground Rural Initiative Grant was created to offer unrestricted grant funding in rural Illinois communities and small towns to support local nonprofits, public institutions, artists, cultural workers, and others who work to keep their communities creative and connected. 

This grant initiative is a subset of our Foreground Rural Initiative program which seeks to amplify the voices of rural communities and small towns.