Rivertown Grandeur

Is any town prouder of its wealth of historic houses than this small city on the Mississippi?

John Wood, who founded Quincy, Ill., in 1822, stepped to a cadence all his own. For one thing, he sported a robust, patriarchal beard, not a hair of which grew on his face. His was a neck beard—in a portrait painted shortly before his death, Wood looks like a Santa whose false whiskers have slumped badly—and historians of fashion have made an educated guess as to why he cultivated it. If a fellow disliked wearing a collar and tie, such a beard would keep observers from knowing whether he was formally attired or not.

A statue of John Wood with his neck beard

Credit: Karol Enmen

Wood also believed that a personal sense of style ought to extend to a man's house. This land baron and politician—he was lieutenant governor of Illinois—lived in a Greek revival showpiece in Quincy. But he wanted something grander, more opulent, and he began constructing a new mansion to outshine it. That structure, which would be called Octagon House, was still being built when the governor, William Harrison Bissell, died in 1860, 10 months before the end of Wood's term as lieutenant governor. Wood resisted the idea of moving to the state capital, Springfield, to take up the reins. How could he walk away from his beloved work-in-progress? He asked permission to work at home—his old Quincy home, that is–and the legislature agreed. Like a pope in Avignon, Wood discharged his duties from afar.

Octagon House is long gone, but the earlier mansion has survived and been restored and is open to the public. It stands as a monument not only to Wood's large ego, but also to a community-wide passion for plush shelter. Quincy, a Mississippi River town of 40,000 some 120 miles upriver from St. Louis, has built—and hung on to—a cornucopia of grand dwellings, block after block, neighborhood after neighborhood. Quincyans cherish their houses, and never more so than at the time of their Behind Closed Doors tour, held annually on a Saturday in mid-October.

For more of this article, e-mail us to purchase a copy.

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.