Can this building be saved? Should it be?

? Facing demolition to clear way for Whiteco, Harlem Avenue condo finds supporters.

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By KATHARINE GRAYSON

To most, it may just look like another example of Oak Park's older multi-family housing stock.

To a small group of residents, though, the three-and-a-half story, brick condo building at 461-67 Harlem Avenue is architecturally and historically significant.

And after a 6-2 vote last week, it appears the village's Historic Preservation Commission agrees the notion at least deserves a public hearing.

Though the building's significance historically is still up for debate, the so-called "Hoppe Building" is of importance to Whiteco's proposed development plan for Harlem and Ontario.

The village purchased the building, located just north of the Border's building, for $1.9 million, and the board has already voted to demolish it. Whiteco's current development plan contemplates building on the land now occupied by the Hoppe Building.

Doug Kaare, village staff liaison to the commission, said on Friday that the commission found the building may have significance as "an example of architectural, historical, cultural, economic or social development or heritage." 

Following such a decision, a public hearing is generally held within 45 days of a vote, he said. At the hearing, the commission would hear testimony for and against historic designation.

The village must provide 15 days notice before a meeting is held, he said.

But utility lines have already been removed, permits pulled, and demolition is scheduled for next week, said village spokesperson David Powers.

The village is still evaluating the ramifications of the commission's decision, and how it may affect demolition plans.

"At this point in the process, we're looking at what, if any,
implications the decision will have," Powers said, adding that the vote was not on the commission's agenda, and was unexpected. "The building was bought over a year ago, so this is very late in the process," he said.

Building site of 'power discussions'
The group who put forward a request that the building be considered as a local landmark argued that the building has historical and architectural significance. It was constructed in 1923, and designed by H. Kramer, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan, said group representative Les Golden. The design of the building was influenced by both architects, he said, and the "serpentine" walkway in the back garden area of the building shows a unique sensitivity to nature. The garden is also home to rabbits, and other wildlife, Golden said.

The application also argues that the building is significant because it was home to "distinguished Oak Parkers" for 100 years?#34;-including former Trustee John Hoppe, Jr., as well as "distinguished attorney" and candidate for State Representative Daniel Rice. It was once managed by George Hemingway, Ernest's uncle.

"Anecdotal history relates that the building was one of the most significant locations of power discussions in the 1920s and 1930s," states the application. "Because of its proximity to the train, deals on development, government, transportation, and other items of commerce and culture were brokered there among developers and cultural leaders of that era."

The village attempted to demolish the building in 1957, which led to "outcry" and repair of the building, the statement further argues.

The part of the group's argument that stuck with some commissioners, however, was that the Hoppe building is one example of a rising movement to develop multi-family housing stock in the 1920s and 1930s.

"As a building, it was advertised as being right in the thick of things. It was that sort of chapter of the village's history when commercial orientation was increasing and there was more of a retail presence in the 1920s and 30s," said commission member, and Historical Society director, Frank Lipo. "That's in addition to being itself an example of a multifamily building with a fair amount of integrity."

When asked if he was concerned that the building was already slated for demolition, Lipo said only, "ideally, these kind of determinations are made not when there's an imminent threat."

Commission member Doug Freerksen said he voted for holding a hearing because he believed the applicant made a strong enough case.

"They made an argument that it represented a neighborhood in Oak Park. I believe that the historic preservation commission is charged with the responsibility of protecting historic neighborhoods and spaces as well as individual buildings," Freerksen said. "That building represents a remainder of a space that doesn't really exist much in the area."

Chair Doug Gilbert and commission member Karen Doty voted against the decision.

Doty said she'll approach the hearing with an "open mind," but did not believe the application was thorough enough.

"I did not think there was enough here in this application to warrant it going to a hearing," she said.

Gilbert said Tuesday that he also believed the application wasn't suitably complete.

"I would have preferred that it be deferred to improve some points," he said. "I don't have an opinion formulated on whether or not it's landmarkable, but I'm not necessarily opposed to it."

Ultimately, Powers said it is likely that any change in the decision to demolish the building will rest with the village board.

Trustee Robert Milstein, the only board member to vote against demolishing the building, said he intended to raise the issue at Tuesday's village board meeting, scheduled after press time.

Milstein said he is requesting that demolition be delayed until the board can hold a joint meeting with the historic preservation commission to discuss the issue. He's also asked for a tour of the building, he added.

"The broader question is to look at historic buildings in Oak Park and make a determination as to how we maintain our historic character," Milstein said.


CONTACT: kgrayson@wjinc.com

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