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Building Memories: Merritt S. Hobson law office

Curator of research Bryan Ogg shows the secret compartment that 19th century attorneys used to store confidential documents. |  Courtesy of Donna DeFalco~Naper Settlement
Murray House when it was at about 215 S. Main St.  |  Naperville Heritage Society photo
Gertrude Rubin and Marion Miller pose in front of the house during the 1931 Naperville Centennial. |  Naperville Heritage Society photo
Curator of research Bryan Ogg points to the hand-lettered sign that was designed and painted by Marianne Lisson Kuhn, fifth-generation Napervillian and local artist. |  Courtesy of Donna DeFalco~Naper Settlement
Limited Club, the social drinking club. |  Naperville Historical Society photo

Facts

1840 June 14 John Murray bought property 1840s House built 1849 Henry Brown, Hair dresser & Barber shop 1850 June 14 John Murray bought property 1850 Census indicate that Benedict Weiniger a lawyer is living in the building with his wife 1852-1853 George Shairer Tailor shop 1856 Jun 7 Robert Murray bought the property from his father, John 1857 May 18 Robert sold the property to Clarissa Hobson, Merritt’s mother Thus – Robert Murray owned the building from Jun 1856 – May 1857 (11 months) 1856 Sept 27 Stephen Douglas was “entertained at the home of R. N. Murray on Main Street.” 1857 – 1865 Merritt lived with his family and practiced law in the building 1860 Census – Merritt Hobson and family in building 1870 Census – Samuel Smith, an attorney and family in building 1880 Census – Samuel Smith, an attorney and family in building 1890 Census – UNKNOWN (records lost in National Archives disaster) 1900 – 1910 Census – Rental property occupied by various families 1920s-1930s The Limited Club, a social drinking establishment 1941 House moved by Rubin family to Fremont Street. Placed on lot there backwards, so back door became front door 1941 A&P opens at 215 S. Main 1971 Building moved to Naper Settlement

When Bryan Ogg came to Naper Settlement a decade ago, he hoped to someday see a building through from discovery to museum piece. But the era of moving buildings to Naper Settlement had ended.

Instead, a recent accomplishment of another kind has satisfied Ogg’s beginning-to-end dream.

His research into an 1840s Naper Settlement building that has been on the property since 1971 has proven it to be more than just a residence. It was actually a downtown law office for much longer.

From at least 1857-1867, the house formerly known as Murray, was the Merritt S. Hobson law office. As of its re-dedication last week, that’s how the Settlement refers to and interprets it.

The previous story indicated it was a wedding gift when Murray married in 1842, but Ogg, the Settlement’s curator of research, found Murray owned the house only from May through December 1851.

“This has always been a question on my mind the past six to seven years,” Ogg told Settlement board members last week. “We had always interpreted this building as Murray House, with a judge’s office in the back. But I began to question why, in 1934, Napervillians called it the Hobson Law Office.”

Napervillians of that year identified four historic structures, including the former Murray residence. It was known at the time as the Hobson Law Office on Main Street, about where Talbot’s is now.

Ogg’s research found that Robert Murray, a nephew of Joe Naper who arrived in town with the founder, owned the home. Clarissa Hobson, who with husband Bailey was a Naperville pioneer, bought the building for her son from Robert Murray, who had bought it from his father, John Murray. Robert Murray lived in the home only from May through December 1851.

Ogg found a business card in an old newspaper advertising RN Murray, attorney & counselor at law, with his address being New York House, a hotel located about in the current Dean’s parking lot.

Meanwhile, Merritt Hobson read law — what we would call studied law, though it was done more as an apprenticeship in those says — in the “Murray House” building with another lawyer. In those pre-law school days, Hobson “received approval to practice law” in 1851.

Typically at the time, buildings remained in use for a particular profession. The building was described as an attorney’s office in the 1850 census, Ogg found, as well as in 1870 and 1880 censuses, when Samuel Smith practiced there.

Logic dictates it was also a law office in 1860. But with history, it’s even better when logic matches evidence: an ad in the May 15, 1861, Naperville Sentinel noted M.S. Hobson’s law practice was “in Murray’s old house, opposite Naper’s store.”

Ogg found records of Hobson paying taxes on the building from 1857 to 1867 and an ad in the DuPage County Press for Hobson’s “attorney and counselor-at-law, notary public and war claim agency” in 1864 to 1865.

A photo of the building in the 1920s shows a car in front of what was then a social drinking establishment called “The Limited Club.” Not clear was whether the drinks, during prohibition, were alcoholic or soft.

During Naperville’s 1931 Centennial celebration, a photo of Gertrude Rubin and Marion Miller in front of the house clearly showed to Ogg, “there was something special about this house that Napervillians held to.”

Bolstering that belief, the Rubin family moved the building rather than tear it down about a decade later, when Sam Rubin needed the land to build a new A&P Grocery.

The building was moved to Fremont Street, where it was secured on site backwards — the back door became the front door. A basement was begun to be dug as well, but “they started digging and then left it,” a granddaughter told Ogg. “When you opened the door, it was just half done.”

In 1971, the historic home was moved to Naper Settlement. Now re-dedicated as a law office, staff refurnished it with authentic period furniture, books and accessories the Heritage Society keeps in storage.

“We had those things,” Ogg said. “That’s why we preserve them. We’re not hoarding, we’re protecting.”

An example of a typical lawyer’s office from the 1850s-1870s — no copy machines or filing cabinets, just pigeonholes, bookcases and piles of papers — the Hobson Law Office offers a hands-on experience with copies of actual documents from the period.

Not to mention a significant milestone for the Settlement and Ogg.

Joni Hirsch Blackman is a journalist and author of “Downtown Naperville.” Contact her at jonihb@culdesacs.net.

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Facts

1840 June 14 John Murray bought property 1840s House built 1849 Henry Brown, Hair dresser & Barber shop 1850 June 14 John Murray bought property 1850 Census indicate that Benedict Weiniger a lawyer is living in the building with his wife 1852-1853 George Shairer Tailor shop 1856 Jun 7 Robert Murray bought the property from his father, John 1857 May 18 Robert sold the property to Clarissa Hobson, Merritt’s mother Thus – Robert Murray owned the building from Jun 1856 – May 1857 (11 months) 1856 Sept 27 Stephen Douglas was “entertained at the home of R. N. Murray on Main Street.” 1857 – 1865 Merritt lived with his family and practiced law in the building 1860 Census – Merritt Hobson and family in building 1870 Census – Samuel Smith, an attorney and family in building 1880 Census – Samuel Smith, an attorney and family in building 1890 Census – UNKNOWN (records lost in National Archives disaster) 1900 – 1910 Census – Rental property occupied by various families 1920s-1930s The Limited Club, a social drinking establishment 1941 House moved by Rubin family to Fremont Street. Placed on lot there backwards, so back door became front door 1941 A&P opens at 215 S. Main 1971 Building moved to Naper Settlement
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