Roff House, Watseka

2020 Landmarks Illinois Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Preservation Award for Restoration

Owner John Whitman is being recognized for his loving restoration of the Roff Home, a 1868 Italianate style house in Watseka famous for its eclectic former owners and storied history, which includes tales of paranormal activity. The house and its stories draw people far and wide: In the past fifteen years, over 10,000 people have toured and even stayed at the home. Before Whitman purchased and restored the property, it had long been neglected. Today, the Roff House is renewed. It’s 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, which stretched over 15 years, and included using historic photographs of the property to ensure the restored home reflected its original appearance. Eager to preserve and renew Watseka’s streetscape, Whitman wanted to make sure this house, like some others in the community, were not torn down and forgotten. By investing in this project, Whitman has invested in the future economic and cultural vitality of his town.

Project Principals

John Whitman

Architect: JH2B Architects, Inc.

Carpentry: World Class Construction

Plumbing: Premier Plumbing & Heating


John Whitman, Roff House owner 

Infamous spiritualists, a notorious federal judge and a worldly aviator and pioneering businesswoman have all owned the Roff Home and have left their mark on Watseka and the world. Through the renovation, my goal has been to preserve their history. This property has been uniquely associated with the Watseka Wonder story since first built by Dorothy and Asa Roff in 1868. Prominent members of the Spiritualist movement, the Roffs gained notoriety in 1878 when a 13-year-old girl named Lurancy Vennum moved into their home for 100 days, claiming to be possessed by the spirit of their dead daughter, Mary. An eyewitness account, “The Watseka Wonder,” was published in 1879 and is reported to have sold more than 100,000 copies. The account was discussed by luminaries and philosophers of the time, such as William Jennings Bryan and the Dalai Lama. More than just a ghost story, it entered contemporary debate about the true nature of the world, what may exist beyond this tangible world and whether we can communicate with it.

Today the “Watseka Wonder” continues to fascinate people, and they travel to the Roff Home to experience this story for themselves. In this sense, I consider the home to be a monument to 19th century Spiritualism. C. W. Raymond, a lawyer, owned the Roff Home from 1912 until his death in 1939. He served as a federal judge in the Indian Territories of Oklahoma under President William McKinley. His peers called his behavior on the bench “peculiar,” and after ruling in favor of a sales tax in the territories, legend has it that he faked his own death and smuggled himself back to Illinois on a hearse train. Katharine Clifton, his stepdaughter, inherited the home and extensive farmland from Raymond in 1939. Born in 1898 near Onarga, Illinois, Katharine was ensured a worldly education, thanks to her mother. They traveled the world in steamer ships, so Katharine could experience the history and cultures of the world. (The steamer trunk from these trips still resides at the Roff Home. The grotto she built behind the house is made up of rocks that she brought back from her trips around the world.) She also learned to play the violin, and during World War I, while living in New York City, she played the violin on street corners to raise money for war bonds. At the age of 40, Katharine had to find a way to manage her newly inherited 36 farms – and 36 male rental farmers – and not be taken advantage of. She learned how to fly, bought an airplane and built a hangar and landing strip behind the house. Each dawn she would literally “oversee” her farmland by flying over each farm to check on progress and hold her farmers accountable. She became an excellent manager of wealth and an inspirational example of a woman who broke through gender roles of her era. When visitors tour the home, I ensure they also learn about the inspirational figure of Katharine Clifton.

How did saving this place impact people in your community?

John Whitman, Roff House owner 

Whether because of the Watseka Wonder story, Judge Raymond or Katharine Clifton, or simply because the home is an excellent piece of area architecture, people have responded enthusiastically to the restoration. I realized early on that the house attracted attention. The home and its history were a burning curiosity, and that first year I opened the home as a charity benefit to the local summer opera festival, Sugar Creek Opera. More than 2,500 people toured, and the Roff Home became the largest donor to Sugar Creek that year. Since then, some 700 people tour or stay in the home each year, having traveled from at least 15 states to do so.

I view the Roff Home as a way for the public to experience history. When groups come to the home because of the Watseka Wonder story, they are here because they want to experience something paranormal. Yet they are also here because they are curious about the past. While I cannot promise an interaction with an intangible spirit world, I can guarantee that they will experience how Victorians lived. They will see the quality and durability of construction and design in the years following the Civil War. They will learn about 19th century trends in philosophy and religion and how Spiritualism fit within that framework. They will get a better sense of what it was like to be mentally ill in the 19th century and the pain and suffering that families experienced as they sought treatments for their family members.

Ultimately, their desire to hear a ghost story is turned into a means for teaching about American history in the Victorian era. Today, the home is a location for exploration of the spiritual unknown. It’s a source of architectural and historical pride for area residents. And it’s a beautiful destination for people wishing to escape for a weekend from the bustle of city life. Importantly, after 15 years of work, I achieved an important milestone. I had always wanted to reach the point that I could host an elegant event at the home. Last September, I held my wedding ceremony and reception on the lawn of the house, under the oak trees that were planted at the time the house was built. The restored Roff Home was the backdrop for one of the most important events of my life.

(Photos Courtesy John Whitman)

Learn more

Attend the 2020 awards ceremony!


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