The oldest printed map of Evanston,  discovered several years ago on the verge of disintegration, has been vibrantly restored and made freely available online by Northwestern University Library at
“This map is a very rare and important piece of
Evanston‘s history,” says University Archivist Kevin Leonard, “and the conservation staff here did an incredible job bringing it back from the grave.” 

Published circa 1876 by local surveyor and mapmaker Theodore Reese, the map appears to be the earliest published plat of blocks, streets and alleys in all three of the separate villages – a north, south and central – that eventually merged into the incorporated City of Evanston.

“So it’s valuable as a relic of Evanston‘s past,” Mr. Leonard says, “but it also continues to be of use to anyone researching the history of their own or other Evanston real estate, because these were some of the earliest legal property boundaries.” 

The history of Evanston real estate has always been intimately intertwined with the University’s history. The area was known as Ridgeville until the mid-19th century, when Northwestern founding trustee Orrington Lunt suggested to his fellow trustees that they purchase a large plot of lakeside land for $1,000 down. In subsequent years, Leonard says, the university trustees acquired additional parcels of land, selling or leasing plots to finance the institution’s growth. Much of this land was surveyed and laid out in plots by the university’s business agent Philo Judson (for whom

Judson Avenue

was named). He submitted the original plat for a village named Evanston, after Northwestern trustee John Evans, in 1854. 

The map just restored by Northwestern includes this central area as well as the two separate settlements to the north and south that were flourishing by the late 19th century. Bordered by advertisements for local businesses including a “Fashionable Bootmaker” and a purveyor of “Family Groceries and Provisions,” the map also contains an ad for Philo Judson’s real estate and surveying business. 

“Philo Judson died in 1876, which means the map must have been published by then,” says George Ritzlin, owner of an antiquarian map business on

Central Street

. “That means it precedes Snyder’s 1883 map, which was previously the earliest known one.” 

Mr. Ritzlin researched the map’s history when he acquired it in 2006 from an Evanston resident who said it had been in his family’s possession for at least 40 years. “It is certainly very rare, and may be unique,” he says, since there was no record of it having been catalogued by the Library of Congress or the Checklist of Printed Maps of the Middle West to 1900, the most comprehensive listing of maps held by Midwestern libraries, museums and historical societies. (Though the Checklist is now 20 years old, its editor, Robert Karrow, who is curator of special collections and maps at the Newberry Library in Chicago, confirms that the map remained unknown until Northwestern recently brought it to his attention; it has now been catalogued.) 

Russell Maylone, the library’s former curator of special collections, bought the map from Mr. Ritzlin and then gave it to University Archives, partly, he says, because it perfectly complemented the existing property records held by the Archives. “But also,” he adds, “because it was obvious that unless it received immediate attention from some highly skilled conservation professionals, it was just going to fall apart and be lost to everyone.” 

Certainly, 40 years of basement storage had taken a huge toll. It was filthy, covered with grime and animal droppings, and colonized by mold and cocoons. Originally mounted for wall-hanging, the 4′ x 3 1/2′ map had been rolled up on its wooden dowels, but the scroll had been crushed, causing the varnished paper to crack into hundreds, if not thousands of tiny pieces. “If not for the fact that most of the pieces were still clinging to the cloth the map was originally mounted on, it would have been completely shattered,” says Susan Russick, who led the team of library conservators that restored the map. 

It took five conservators almost 100 hours to repair and stabilize the map. The process, which was documented in a four-minute video, began with removal of the loose dirt and debris. Then a gentle water bath rinsed away decades of accumulated grime, removed soluble degradation products, and softened the adhesive that had held the cloth lining in place. 

Next, the original cloth lining was removed – an extremely delicate and tedious process during which the technicians had to ensure that the fragments remained in place. The map was re-lined, this time with six sheets of Japanese tissue paper. Only then, with the fragments properly secured, could the technicians carefully dissolve the original, badly discolored varnish. 

Finally, a few bald patches were shaded in with watercolor. “Where the fragments had actually fallen off, we didn’t attempt to re-create any of the original design or lettering,” Mr. Russick says. “It’s not our goal to make a document like this appear new again. But we will make non-invasive improvements so that its imperfections and discolorations aren’t the first thing you notice when you look at it.” 

Of course, having brought the map “back from the grave,” another goal is to extend its life as long as possible. It is still extremely valuable as a research tool, says Archivist Leonard, because it actually turns out to be an important key to many of the University’s other Evanston property records. Many of these are organized by original block and lot numbers rather than by contemporary street addresses. For most properties platted before 1876, these lot numbers appear on the map and can easily be matched with those street addresses. But repeatedly unrolling the map, or even hanging it in a publicly accessibly place, would subject it to wear and tear that would ultimately shorten its lifespan. 

“Thanks to digitization, it’s now available to anyone with access to a computer terminal,” Mr. Leonard says. “That’s an example of sophisticated technology helping us ensure that a rare and valuable historical document is going to be around for a long time.”