Calendar | Abraham Lincoln Tourism Bureau of Logan County

Can you hear me now?          Send a link to a friend

1800s communication system returns to Bloomington mansion of Judge David Davis, a Lincoln associate

[September 08, 2007]  BLOOMINGTON -- There's never a servant around when you need one. U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Davis and his wife, Sarah, had an ingenious solution to that problem built into their Victorian mansion in Bloomington. The original communication system at the David Davis Mansion has been re-created, delighting visitors who can now see and hear this state-of-the-art 19th-century technology.

"The return of the annunciator system, as it was called in the 1870s, is the culmination of a decade-long project involving many skilled researchers, artisans and benefactors," said Marcia Young, site manager at the David Davis Mansion. "Judge Davis, like his friend and associate Abraham Lincoln, was fascinated by the latest technology and made sure his large, new Bloomington home included this novel communication system."

The mansion's original, mechanical communication system used small levers, pull wires, bell cranks (sometimes called "dog legs") and a mechanical annunciator panel to signal the maid to come to the room where the caller was located. The original annunciator panel was installed in the mansion's kitchen. Thus, when Sarah Davis or another family member pulled a call bell lever in any room, the pulling action, through a series of pulleys and dog legs, rang a gong on the annunciator panel in the kitchen and tripped a metal indicator, showing the maid where the caller was located.

One of the fascinating features of the system was a floor-mounted device located underneath Sarah Davis' chair in the dining room, which allowed her to summon the servants from the kitchen without leaving her chair, to the surprise and delight of her guests. Guides can demonstrate how the system worked from the dining room as well as the sitting room and master bedroom by pulling the call bell levers in those rooms.

The David Davis Mansion annunciator project began in 1996 with a $4,000 grant from the Verizon Foundation. The Verizon funds were matched by a $2,000 grant from the David Davis Mansion Foundation, a private organization that supports the Davis Mansion's programs. The late Judge Wayne Townley, a member of the Davis Mansion Foundation board in the early 1990s, presented the grant proposal in 1995, and Mary Jean Palma, a mansion volunteer and Verizon employee, helped steer the proposal through the application process.

The original research on the mansion's annunciator system was conducted in the 1980s by John Bowditch, then curator of technology for the Henry Ford Museum. William Bond, a tool and die specialist from Ann Arbor, Mich., who had replicated many of the mansion's original mechanical systems during its 1990s restoration, was hired to continue Bowditch's research, using museum archives throughout the United States. What made the research so challenging was the fact that the mansion's annunciator system was operated mechanically, whereas most existing 19th-century call bell systems were electrically operated. After a lengthy search, Bond was able to locate vintage drawings and operating instructions that could be used to reproduce the mansion's mechanical annunciator system. The restoration team decided that it could only make the replica function reliably, however, if they made it operate electrically.

[to top of second column]

Mansion staff began searching for artisans in the Bloomington-Normal community who could turn the 19th-century drawings into reality. With the help of Ken Menestrina, a member of the David Davis Mansion Foundation board, a team of talented local craftsmen was assembled that included George King, master carpenter; Russ Roberts of Weber Electric, who fabricated the electrical connections that made the panel functional; Tom Wheeler, Don Boyer and Mike Folks of Conrad Sheet Metal Company, who made the metal parts for the system; and Michael Henning, a decorative artist who wood- grained the annunciator's casement.

One of the distinguishing features of the David Davis Mansion in the 1870s was its mechanical systems -- gas lighting, central heating, indoor plumbing and, especially, its communications systems, including telephones, speaking tubes and call bells. Such systems made the Davis Mansion one of the first modern homes in central Illinois.

Today, these vintage mechanical systems are rare, as most were discarded when they were replaced by more advanced technologies in the 20th century. Although later generations of the Davis family removed portions of the original systems whenever the mansion was updated, they saved the majority of these systems, storing them in outbuildings on the estate.

The David Davis Mansion State Historic Site, administered by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, is located just off of Route 9 in Bloomington. It is open Wednesday through Sunday for free public tours.

[Text from Illinois Historic Preservation Agency news release received from the Illinois Office of Communication and Information]

< Tourism index

Back to top


News | Sports | Business | Rural Review | Teaching & Learning | Home and Family | Tourism | Obituaries

Community | Perspectives | Law & Courts | Leisure Time | Spiritual Life | Health & Fitness | Teen Scene
Calendar | Letters to the Editor