Taking inventory

River Forest surveys its diverse housing and building stock

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Writer

In local government, "speed" may be a relative term, but a recent initiative in River Forest proves that when it comes to recognizing architectural and historical significance, it is possible to get relatively quick results. After spending years thinking about how to approach the issue of recognizing and protecting the rich housing stock in the village, in less than two years, River Forest not only came up with a plan but completed a village-wide survey of all of every building — and created a database detailing each building's architectural and historical significance. 

The resulting database and historical research are available on the River Forest website at: www.vrf.us/residents/historic-preservation, which provides a substantial resource for the village. 

Getting started

River Forest Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) member Laurel McMahon said historic preservationists in the village have spent a lot of time thinking about how to identify significant properties. 

"We've been working toward this for a number of years," McMahon said. "The last time the village did this was in the 1970s when they identified the original historic district. That was more of a 'windshield' survey, done from the street. This time we really wanted to capture a more in-depth snapshot of River Forest today."

When the River Forest village board enacted its first Historic Preservation Ordinance in 2007, it established the HPC in order to identify significant properties in the village. McMahon notes that the commission's role in the community is purely advisory, but through the survey she hopes to offer a valuable community resource. 

With the help of the village in 2011, the commission hired the Lakota Group, a Chicago-based team of professionals skilled in urban planning and architectural and historic preservation, to survey the village by evaluating every property for significance, whether architectural or historical. 

Prep work

Nick Kalogeresis, vice president of the Lakota Group, joined forces with two other Oak Park residents, architect and historic preservationist Douglas Gilbert and architectural historian Jean Guarino, to survey River Forest on a detailed scale. Guarino got to work first, completing her exhaustive research on the village's past.

For 3-4 months, Guarino compiled a historical chronology of the village. Her essays are available to the community on the village website. Gilbert said Guarino's work paved the way for the survey he and Kalogeresis later conducted.

"Jean did her research first, so she had already drafted context studies," he said. "That helped Nick and me get a base understanding of significant architects and developmental periods of the village. Obviously, we were familiar with the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and William Drummond, but we found so much more."

McMahon noted that while the actual survey of individual buildings is invaluable, Guarino's research is equally noteworthy. 

"The insights that Jean provided on the significance of economic and political roles in the building out of the village are fantastic," said McMahon. "It's like she wrote a book about River Forest."

Guarino went back to the village's origins for her research, but one particular era stands out as formative. 

"Doing the research, what really struck me is that River Forest is a community of single-family homes for a reason," said Guarino. "There were zoning changes in 1928, and the village worked really hard to emphasize the importance of single-family living." 

Walking the streets

With over 3,000 single-family homes and community buildings throughout the village, River Forest's streets provided ample data for Gilbert and Kalogeresis when they began the actual survey work in June of 2012. Kalogeresis said that under many circumstances, interns would have been sent out to do the legwork for the survey, but in this case he and Gilbert wanted to do it themselves.

"We divided up the village," he recalled, "and I got the western portion while Doug got east of Lathrop. I hadn't done an on-site survey in years, but it was great to see the diversity and quality of the homes — from Tudor and Colonial to Prairie Style to Queen Anne and mid-century homes and ranches. When I started in preservation planning, we were using paper and pencil. We decided to try new iPad applications because we were surveying over 3,000 properties."

Using technology made the work easier, Gilbert said. "We started in June during what was a very hot summer, and generally, we'd walk up one side of the block, then down the other. We'd do every property, even if it was newer, just so we had some record of each. We could use the iPad for photos that would link right to the survey."

Once they were done walking for the day, Kalogeresis and Gilbert downloaded their work into the database they were creating. They finished the initial survey in October 2012, and had their first report to the commission by December.

Community resource

Compared with the work done in the 1970s, McMahon said, this survey offers a much better picture of the significance of buildings in River Forest. "In the 70s, Prairie [style] was the big thing. Now we know there's so much more to appreciate."

Kalogeresis agrees. "People don't necessarily realize the quality and number of resources in River Forest. Beyond Frank Lloyd Wright, so many others, like the Buurma brothers, contributed to the village. In many ways, River Forest really is the story of the Burma brothers. Their vision is responsible for much of the village's development. The mid-century resources are also very nice. People may compare these ranches to the mansions and think they are not very significant, but there's a lot more high quality there than I expected going into the survey."

All involved stress that the value of the survey is not only in its accessibility to any interested party but also in the ease with which it can be updated. Gilbert said its value reaches far beyond preservationists like himself. 

"It can be used by so many people," he noted, "realtors, homeowners, buyers doing research on a house, high school students. By using an electronic database system, River Forest officials can also change and update the information as needed. If a homeowner comes across original drawings, they can call the village and put additional information on the entry for their address. It's like a living document."

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