Carolyn Oxtoby

February 7, 2024

Carolyn Oxtoby, downtown Springfield advocate called 'patron saint of Sixth Street,' dies

Steven Spearie

Springfield State Journal- Register, January 15, 2024.

Carolyn Oxtoby, a champion of downtown Springfield and historic preservation whose work earned her the moniker "the patron saint of Sixth Street," died in Florida on Friday, January 12. She was 92.

Oxtoby's death was confirmed by her son, Tom Oxtoby. She is survived by another son, Michael; a daughter, Susan; two granddaughters and two great grandchildren. Her husband, Robert, an attorney, died in 1997. No funeral is planned.

A lifelong resident of the city, Oxtoby was named the 1998 State Journal-Register First Citizen.

Oxtoby was credited with starting downtown's revitalization in the mid-1970s when she and her brother, Stephen Bartholf, inherited what is now the Merrill Lynch building at the northeast corner of Sixth and Monroe streets from the Pasfield family trust. Oxtoby was the great-great granddaughter of George Pasfield, one of the early pioneers of Springfield.

"We don't have the Carolyn Oxtobys anymore," said Michael Higgins, the owner and chef of Maldaner's restaurant, which occupies one of the buildings she renovated. "She truly cared about downtown. She truly cared about the growth of downtown. She truly cared about the residential growth of downtown. Ever since I've known her, she was a strong advocate for downtown, not only an advocate but a passionate advocate."

Oxtoby was a founding member, along with architect Dick Morse and historian and attorney Dick Hart, of the Heritage Foundation. The foundation was formed as a not-for-profit arm of Downtown Springfield, Inc., in 1999 to encourage donations of neglected historic structures that might otherwise be demolished.

In presenting a rare lifetime achievement award in 2010, Landmarks Illinois president James Peters said Oxtoby "literally changed the face of downtown Springfield."

Other projects under Oxtoby's signature included the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices; the Fisher-Latham building in the 100 block of North Sixth Street and the 17-unit Sears Apartment Building in the 400 block of South Seventh Street.

In 2001, Oxtoby and Bartholf donated $350,000 for the purchase of the former Masonic Temple which was converted into the Hoogland Center for the Arts. Several theatre and performance groups now call the HCFTA home.

In interviews with the SJ-R over the years, Oxtoby said she saw historic preservation as a tool for economic development and for downtown revitalization.

"I get very upset," Oxtoby said in 2011, "when buildings get torn down. What I want is a vibrant, humming downtown. I want lots of buildings. I want lots of people. I want lots of activity. When you tear buildings down, you eliminate the chance of that."

Dave Leonatti, a principal architect with Melotte Morse Leonatti Parker, worked with Oxtoby immediately after he arrived in Springfield in 1984.

Oxtoby pioneered in Springfield, Leonatti said, the mixed-use strategy, that is, developing housing, apartments and condominiums, above commercial first-floor businesses.

Leonatti said Oxtoby earned her revered nickname.

"(Sixth Street between Adams and Monroe) to this day is completely still intact, not a gap-toothed stretch of facades and surface parking lots," he said. “Her understanding that if the buildings were foundationally restored, the historic buildings could be cycled through many different business and residential uses over time. She was very prescient (that way)."

Tom Oxtoby said that nickname given his mother was "earned by doing what she did. It wasn't just given to her. And it didn't just happen overnight."

Oxtoby's goal with the Heritage Foundation, Leonatti said, was to provide the mechanism to have abandoned properties revitalized and to entice otherwise ambivalent property owners to donate their underutilized buildings.

The foundation’s construct, Leonatti added, was that a building owner would take a tax deduction for the building donation, and in turn the Heritage Foundation would "sell" the building to a developer who would facilitate the renovations, using the modest sale price to fund the organization.

Its successes, he said, include the Bunn-Sankey House at 1001 S. Sixth St., which was purchased by attorney Bruce Beeman in 2010, and the Haxel Law Offices and apartments at 310 E. Adams St.

Oxtoby and other businesses along Sixth between Monroe and Adams, Leonatti added, commissioned the design and paid for the construction of new sidewalks with the concrete paver amenity strips and historic reproduction streetlighting.

That led to the city adopting the "Streetscape" concept throughout downtown, he said.

Higgins said Oxtoby saw the need to increase population density downtown, and she practiced what she preached.

At one point, Oxtoby managed about 30 apartments downtown, which tended to lease quickly and almost always had waiting lists.

"She was a good landlord," Higgins said. "She responded to the needs of her tenants. She took care of her properties.

"She recognized the fact that as you fill the downtown with people, then businesses and services want to move in. She saw the need to create those living situations so those people working downtown could not only work downtown but live downtown and shop downtown and she was very adamant about that. She was a visionary about that."

Mayor Misty Buscher said she hoped that Oxtoby's legacy and advocacy can be carried on, but it will be a huge goal.

"We enjoy looking at historic buildings, at the woodwork and the architecture and the structures, so we do figure out a way to preserve and reuse them but make them accommodating to today's fire code or health and safety codes," Buscher said. "I think that people do enjoy those, and it does bring economic development."

John Stremsterfer, president and chief executive of the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln, said one of his last memories of Oxtoby was when she set up a folding chair in front of the Maldaner's building and watched workers take off the old metal paneling from the Booth Ferguson building.

"I love that she was so happy to see that being removed and get that project going," Stremsterfer said. "Of course, I'm sure she'd be sad to know that it hasn't been completed, but she just cared so much about it all."

Leonatti said Oxtoby was a consensus-builder who used the power of her family name and her status as a building owner and investor, along with her connections to local politics, to validate her strategies and opinions but never in condescending ways.

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