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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Old Illinois Houses

John Drury

reprinted by
The University of Chicago Press
Chicago and London, 1977

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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John Wood
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

[image ALT: A photograph of a large brick house, taller than wide, composed of two three-story square towers with slightly sloping roofs connected by a near two‑story section. It sits in au unkempt-appearing lawn edged with shrubs. It is the William R. Duncan House near Towanda, Illinois.]

William R. Duncan House, Near Towanda, Built 1870's.

 p65  Mansion in a Cornfield

An object of curiosity to more than two generations of travelers on the Alton (the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio) railway between Chicago and Springfield is the unusually tall old brick mansion, vaguely Italian Renaissance in design, which towers above a cornfield near Towanda, just north of Bloomington. Now used as a farmhouse, as indicated by the outbuildings around it, this dwelling is of such striking appearance that passers-by cannot help but wonder about the man who built it.

That man was William R. Duncan, pioneer farmer and stock-raiser. Research by Annabel C. Cary, a Bloomington writer, discloses that Duncan was a native of Kentucky who had been attracted by the rich farming and pasture lands of central Illinois. When the time came for him to erect an abode suitable to his station, he purposely set out to  p66 make it impressive. Tradition says he wanted it to be noticed by travelers to and from Chicago and Springfield; he wanted it to be a show place.

Duncan evidently attained his objective. But he was destined to enjoy this pleasure but a short while. For ill luck and tragedy came with the completion of his great house. Costing thousands of dollars to build, the house greatly reduced his personal fortune. And then he was saddened by the death of his wife. He buried her in a small family graveyard adjoining his mansion. A few years later his fifteen-year‑old son, Henry, was drowned in a slough east of the mansion and he, too, was buried in the family graveyard.

"Later," writes Miss Cary, "Mr. Duncan himself, while attending a fair at Decatur, was stricken with illness, and hurrying home, became so much worse he was forced to stop at Normal, where he died [in 1876] almost within sight of his home."

Known locally as Duncan Manor, this three‑story mansion is designed like an "H," with the four corners marked by towers similar to those found on Renaissance buildings. It is built entirely of brick, with stone trimmings. Between the towers at the rear of the house are comfortable "galleries" which testify to the Southern origin of the builder of the house.

As this house has twenty spacious rooms, with more in the basement, it is presumed that care of such a large establishment was to be performed by servants. Whether or not Duncan had servants has not been determined. But it is evident that the rooms in the basement, crude and of unfinished brick, were intended as living quarters for them.

It is very likely that Duncan, having come from the South, planned to staff his abode with Negro servants. And if he did, he evidently took measures to keep them within bounds, for the basement windows are protected by stout iron bars. Another feature of the house which might be connected with the maintenance of Negro servants is a mysterious trap door in one of the second-floor bedrooms which lets down into a bare, dark room. Although numerous old Illinois houses, especially in the southern part of the state, have these trap doors, leading to secret rooms, the use of this somewhat bizarre arrangement has never been satisfactorily explained.

As with all expensive mansions of the Civil War era, Duncan Manor has lofty, spacious rooms and hallways. The central hallway is especially noteworthy for its curving staircase with a fine walnut balustrade. In the walls at the landings are niches for flowers or statuary. Other features of the interior are marble fireplaces, inside paneled shutters, copper bathtubs, and ornamental chandeliers.

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Page updated: 7 Dec 07