Harper House (Ben Harper)
2810 5th Avenue
Rock Island's 100 Most Significant Unprotected Structures, 2009
Significance StatementEarliest Greek Revival house in Rock Island and perhaps the oldest documented residence in the city limits.
Architect / Builder
The Story of One of Rock Island's Oldest Houses
The current Sacred Heart rectory, one of the oldest houses in Rock Island, dates from when this area was part of the pioneer village of Farnhamsburg. Although it is difficult to track occupancy of these very early homes, different sources indicate the same story. It is likely this home was built by hotelier, developer and one-term mayor, Ben Harper. Born in Philadelphia in 1817, Harper came to Rock Island in 1850 with $75,000 and a dream to turn this town of 2,000 people into a bustling metropolis. Besides real estate, Harper was involved in the Coal Valley mines, Rock Island Gas Works and the Rock Island & Moline Railway Company. In the 1870s he built the famed Harper House, known as "the best hotel in the west" at 19th Street and 2nd Avenue. A few years later he built the Harper Opera House. He died in 1887.
On June 23, 1853, Harper sold the house and ten acres of ground to the newly arrived Charles Buford for $10,000. Lucy and Charles Buford were southern aristocracy. Lucy was the niece of John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United State Supreme Court. Charles was a Yale graduate turned gentleman farmer who raised thoroughbred horses. Charles' cousin, John Buford, had relocated from Kentucky to Rock Island in 1838, where he was raising his family, including John Jr., who would become a Civil War general and the hero of Gettysburg. Lucy and Charles and their ten children lived in this house only a couple of years before building their palatial home at 1804 7th Avenue.
In May 1856, the sale of the Charles Buford home and acreage was delayed due to a torrential storm. It is likely William Whitman was the next owner. Clara Whitman, who lived well into her nineties, was born in the house in 1858. Mr. Whitman was involved in building the first railroad bridge in Rock Island, along with Henry Farnam, John Jervis, John E. Henry, Rodney Sherwin and John R. Warner. Warner and Whitman were neighbors with very large homes on Moline Avenue, which later was renamed 5th Avenue.
Before being purchased by the church, the home was occupied by the Milo Lee family. Later owners used it as a boarding house. When the Sisters of the Visitation arrived in Rock Island from Kentucky in the 1890s to open what would become the Villa de Chantal, they lived for a time on the second floor of the house while they cleaned the nearby old Reynolds mansion for their first school. When the Villa nuns left Rock Island, they gave the church a statue of Christ with upraised arms that had once stood at the Villa. That statue is now mounted in front of the house.
Sacred Heart Church Moves the House
Miss Whitman recalled that Sacred Heart Church moved the house away from the corner so that the church could be constructed in that location. She also noted the original kitchen was separate from the main house. This claim was backed up by an article about plans for the church in the July 20, 1900, edition of The Argus. "Owing to the difficulty encountered in moving the rectory and preparing the site, a great part of the building season has been lost and only the foundation will be attempted this fall. The moving of the rectory was an undertaking of no mean order, and a man who has made himself famous in similar enterprises, Harvey Sheeler, of Chicago, was brought here to do it. The rectory is one of the oldest buildings in the city, having been built around 1850 by Ben Harper. It is a two-story brick, 40x34 feet on the ground. It was raised two feet and moved 20 feet east without sustaining the least injury. Contractor C.J. Larkin excavated the cellar and placed the underpinning, and now one would never dream that the building had spent half a century in any other than that identical spot." Sheeler was an engineer from Chicago who patented much of that era’s house moving equipment.
Rare Greek Revival
The house is in the Greek Revival style, popular from 1820 to 1860, although it shares similarities with earlier 18th Century styles, including Georgian and Adam. The windowpanes surrounding the front door are characteristic of the style. Four chimneys are built into the end walls and the third story windows are covered by ornate grillwork. Sanborn maps show that the porch was enlarged to its present size after 1906.