WATSEKA — It’s been a long journey for John Whitman and the historic Roff House in Watseka, and his efforts over a 15-year period have reaped some just rewards.
Whitman, a Watseka native, has poured tons of sweat, work, money and his heart into the Italianate-style house at 300 E. Sheridan St. in Watseka.
“This house is fixed up enough, it’s renovated enough, it’s beautiful enough, someone would want to come spend time in the house without knowing anything about the story, without having any interest in anything paranormal,” Whitman said. “They will say, ‘This is a beautiful, old home and I once spent time there.’ It’s finally reached that point.”
Whitman bought the house in 2005 and started its rebirth from scratch. The finished product is so impressive that in October it won the Landmarks Illinois’ Richard H. Driehaus Foundation’s Preservation Award for Restoration.
In awarding the Roff House, the foundation said, “The house and its stories draw people far and wide: In the past 15 years, over 10,000 people have toured and even stayed at the home. ... It had long been neglected. Today, the Roff House is renewed. Its architectural details are celebrated and historic characteristics brought back to life. A tremendous amount of research was put into crafting Whitman’s five-phase restoration plan.”
Whitman stuck to a plan in the restoration.
“Because of the history of the home, I’ve been very careful in trying to put it back the way it was, respecting the original character of the home, the original color scheme, the architectural details,” Whitman said. “I basically peeled back 150 years of renovations and additions and changes to the home to save what was here originally to every extent possible to put that back.”
The house also has a ghostly past, and it’s been known as the Watseka Wonder.
According to a Daily Journal story from 2014, “The Watseka Wonder” is the story of 13-year-old Lurancy Vennum, who reportedly was possessed for 100 days by the spirit of Mary Roff, whose parents bought property in 1865, the year that Mary died at age 19.
The story became widespread through a 19th century spiritualist’s booklet, a 1977 novel “Watseka,” a 2009 film “The Possessed,” as well as the guidebook “Weird Illinois.”
Whitman found out early when he began the restoration the local folks and tourists had an interest in the house.
“I found I could not be outside on the lawn without somebody stopping their car and coming up and say, ‘Can I please see your house?’” he said. “I learned very early on just that first summer that I had the house that people have a very strong interest in the story of the house. I needed to learn how to have a manner for dealing with it.
“I began opening the house to people who wanted to see the house, doing open houses, tours and then for ghost-hunting groups who wanted to come through the house and look for things.”
Whitman slowly brought the house back to life, replacing the roof to stop ongoing water damage and rebuilding a portion of the foundation. He did the work in phases, some by his own “sweat equity” and by using local contractors.
“There was no heat,” he said. “The electrical was old, so there were some things I did right away. There were five roofs on the house. No one had ever taken a roof off the house in 150 years, so we took them all off, and put on a new roof, matching the color scheme of the original roofing and the original shingles.
“We put a new boiler in to keep the house warm in the winter and then worked out from there. That was the first phase in the first year or so.”
Whitman also searched online to find the best way to restore the old house while maintaining its historic value. He bought the house for the value of the land that it sits on, so he was able to sink a great deal of money in the project, within reason.
“I tried to keep the cost of the renovation in line with what a house of that size and that age would go for in Watseka,” he said. “I’ve tried to keep it under $250,000 in terms of the whole project.”
With the Roff House’s restoration completed, Whitman began offering the house for rental on airbnd this past year.
“It really took off this summer,” he said. “We started in the winter, and we had one weekend a month somebody was there. Starting in the summer and stretching into now, there’s probably about between a third and a half of the days of the month it is rented out now for people on Airbnd or for investigations, people wanting to spend time there. It’s been very busy.”
When Whitman was in his 20s and living in New York City, he often thought about his boyhood home in Watseka. He felt separated from that feeling even while living in Chicago, where he maintains a home and works remotely for a marketing company. It’s one of the reasons he bought the Roff House.
“This house and all the blood, sweat and tears that I put into it over the past 15 years, I realized a few years ago this has become not just a house, it’s my home,” he said. “It’s not just like a museum or a monument to the original ghost story of the house, but it has become my home. I find myself hard to separate myself from that.”
Now, he can kick back and relax in the house.
“After 15 years of working on the house and worrying about the house, wondering how I’m going to get it done, how am I going to afford this, am I doing it the right way, I just want to sit and enjoy the house,” Whitman said. “Sit in the backyard and have a barbecue and look up at the house and think, ‘Wow, I did this.’ I gave myself this challenge, and it was much more challenging than I thought it would ever be.”