By Isaac Guerrero
Staff writer

ROCKFORD — Cedric Marks is reclaiming his life, one tile at a time, inside a North Main Street mansion built more than a century ago.

The ceramic tiles that Marks is pulling out of the 6,000-square-foot house are smaller and more durable than the kind made today. Each freed tiled is as good as new and will be repurposed.

The dismantling began this summer. The tile, wood and other materials stripped from 841 N. Main St. have fetched some $40,000 so far — enough to pay Marks and four other ex-offenders $75 a day for their work. The men build furniture from the salvaged material. The dining room is now a furniture showroom packed with tables, chairs and benches. It's a big house, and the salvaging will continue through spring.

"I enjoy doing it,” said Marks, 28. “I feel like it's preserving something that's been here for so long, and even though it's coming apart, it's being saved at the same time.”

Marks and the other men in this house can't easily find steady work because of their criminal history. They've been brought here and hired by Bill Howard, a city-licensed demolition contractor who used to design landfills and now spends his days trying not to fill them up.

Howard, 72, is an evangelist of "historic deconstruction," the process of carefully stripping historically salvageable material from buildings and reusing it. He's got a virtual showroom — therockfordbrand.com — for the furniture his crew builds from the materials others might have thrown away.

The sprawling North Main Street house will be torn down next year and turned into a parking lot for the adjacent Skyrise Apartments. The owner of the apartment building bought the house — built in 1904 by George Forbes, whose family established Rockford's Gunite foundry — and is allowing Howard to strip it before it's razed.

The city hired Howard last summer to manage a similar dismantling job at the city-owned Barber-Colman factory complex off of South Main Street. Howard employed ex-offenders to do that work, too, and it's become his business model: hiring ex-criminals to reclaim material from old buildings and, in the process, reclaim their lives.

"All these guys have had brushes with the law," Howard said. "If they weren't here every day prying wood from the floor and making furniture, where would they be? We've got all these old houses in Rockford that nobody wants anymore. And we've got all these ex-offenders who need the work."

Richard Robinson — everyone in the house calls him Woody — spent Thursday morning bundling piles of pine lath that was pried from the walls of the house. The strips of wood will be fashioned into decorative baskets or perhaps picture frames.

Robinson was homeless last summer, spent Christmas in jail and now earns enough to afford an apartment in southwest Rockford.

“I'm learning stuff that I should have learned in my 20s,” he said. “Not just the deconstruction, but teamwork. How to make things. How to make something out of nothing.”

Howard would like to replicate what he's doing at this North Main Street mansion on a much larger scale. Money isn't really the obstacle; he just needs old buildings to salvage. There's no shortage of that in the Rockford area. There were 12,200 mortgage foreclosure filings in Rockford in the last five years, a phenomenon that officials say has resulted in thousands of potentially vacant or abandoned homes throughout the city.

Rockford's blight boom is keeping city code inspectors busy. Inspections rose 13.2 percent to 6,258 from January to August of this year, compared with 5,527 during the same period in 2015. A report commissioned by the city this year recommends several strategies to clean up these dilapidated properties, including a more coordinated effort among city and Winnebago County officials with respect to tax-delinquent properties and code-enforcement efforts.

The Illinois Housing Development Authority in February awarded nearly $1.2 million to Rockford and $840,000 to Winnebago County to demolish or deconstruct vacant, dilapidated homes. The Blight Reduction Program allows the empty lots to be sold to neighbors, converted to parkland, or improved with landscaping or even a community garden.

Winnebago County has partnered with Comprehensive Community Solutions Inc., a Rockford nonprofit agency best known for its YouthBuild program that allows high school dropouts to earn a General Equivalency Development certificate while simultaneously learning basic construction skills as they help build or rehab affordable housing. The $840,000 will allow the agency to eliminate 30 to 40 dilapidated homes in Winnebago County.

"The biggest frustration is getting control of those properties through the legal process,” said County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen.

Howard's home-grown effort is encouraging, Christiansen said, because it simultaneously addresses another of the region's vexing problems. Police say there are 1,000 parolees living in the Rockford area at any given time. They need all kinds of support, including jobs, to become productive members of society once again.

“We've been fortunate, and so has the city, to get these grants to go after all these vacant homes, but actually going to court and getting those property titles is time-consuming,” Christiansen said. “If it takes a year to acquire the title to 25 houses, you're barely making a dent.”

Isaac Guerrero: 815-987-1361; iguerrero@rrstar.com@isaac_rrs