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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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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

[image ALT: A photograph of a small, low one-and-a‑half-‑story rectangular brick house, with a pyramidal roof pitched at about 40° and two chimneys; a sort of porch extends over the entire length of the house — a small eave-like roof with four trellises to the ground. It is the Cunningham House near Virginia, Illinois.]

Historic American Buildings Survey

Andrew Cunningham House, Near Virginia, Built 1852.

 p96  Adobe Construction

When sawmills and brickyards began to appear in Illinois the crude log cabins of the first inhabitants were supplanted by frame and brick houses designed after the architecture prevalent on the Eastern Seaboard and on Southern plantations. Since the architectural styles then current were either Georgian or Greek Revival, a good many of the first dwellings copied these styles. But whatever their design, these early homes were built of wood, stone, or brick.

An exception to this rule, however, is a two‑story house built on a farm some three miles northeast of Virginia, seat of Cass County and one of the first settlements on the old Springfield-Beardstown road, now State Highway 125. Still in a fairly good state of preservation after almost a century of existence, this house is one of the most unusual dwellings in the state. What gives it distinction is that it is built entirely of adobe brick. It is believed to be the only adobe house in Illinois, and there are some who claim it is the only house of this type in the Midwest.

As is well known, the adobe form of construction is peculiar to the dry, sunny Southwest, where it was used extensively by the early Spanish conquerors. Curiously enough, the adobe house at Virginia was not built by anyone from New Mexico or Texas, but by a practical and resourceful Scot who had never, so far as is known, visited the Southwest.

 p97  That Scotsman was Andrew Cunningham. Soon after arriving in New York in 1834 he heard of the opportunities to be found on the western frontier and started for Illinois. He came westward on an Erie Canal boat, by stage, and on foot. Upon arriving at his destination he decided to set up a tannery. This required a plentiful supply of water and oak timber and these he found to his satisfaction in Cass County — at a place on Job's Creek called Sugar Grove. Here Cunningham acquired a large tract of land for a farm and built himself a small house.

The tannery was soon a thriving project. Andrew Cunningham's fortunes rose and it was then he decided to erect a more substantial house. That brought up the problem of suitable building material.

The story of how Cunningham built his adobe house in central Illinois is interestingly told in Volume 28 of the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. It was written by Lorene Martin of Virginia. After pointing out how Cunningham was "a man of great industry and resourcefulness, with a mind well stored with practical information," the author of the article gives a detailed picture of the construction of this unique house.

"Taking common mud," she writes, "and mixing it with ground tanbark, using hair scraped from hides before tanning as a binder, he molded large blocks (6 by 12 by 18 inches) and baked them in the sun. The result was satisfactory, and from these adobe bricks a substantial and well proportioned two‑story house, having nine large rooms, besides two broad halls, was built. Upon completion the exterior was given a coating of cement plaster for protection against a possibly unfavorable effect of the Illinois climate. Overhanging eaves — supported by braces of ironwork beautifully designed by Mr. Cunningham himself, who had a strong artistic sense — were added for further protection against the weather and gave as well a pleasing balance to the architectural lines."

This house, we are told, was completed in 1852. In the years following, it attracted widespread attention because of its unusual construction. Despite this, however, the adobe style of house did not win popular approval in Illinois.

When he died in 1895 Andrew Cunningham left his heirs the diary of his trip the Illinois in 1835, his library, household articles, art objects, and one other reminder of him. That was a circular plot of ground in front of the adobe house which he ordered should never be touched as it contained original prairie grass — the six- to eight-foot high grass which covered the great, wide prairies of Illinois before the coming of the white man.

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Page updated: 5 Jan 12