Gaining ground

The Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District loses a house and gains a front yard

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by LINDA DOWNING MILLER

It's been a busy few weeks at the northeast corner of Euclid and Chicago avenues. On Saturday morning, Jan. 8, strangers bearing tools emerged from vans and trucks, entered the two-story home at 500 N. Euclid Ave., and left a few hours later carrying items that were once secured to walls and countertops.

On Sunday, a SWAT team from the Oak Park police force burst into the home‚Ä"just like on TV. Later that week, the brick walls came tumbling down.

Owner Marc Bell hopes that by the time you read this article, 500 N. Euclid Ave. will be a patch of smooth ground. Is he planning to build a modern monstrosity? On the contrary, he's simply planning to landscape his expanded front yard.

Marc and Arlene Bell live at 506 N. Euclid Ave., an historic home built in 1920 for Arthur Basse and designed by architects Tallmadge & Watson.

"We moved from the city to Oak Park in 1986," Marc recalled. "They sold [the house] when we bought it as a side-entrance Colonial."

Shortly after moving in, the Bells began hearing comments from friends and strangers about the house that seemed awkwardly parked in front of their own. They discovered the corner house had been built in 1956‚Ä"on what was once Arthur Basse's front yard. In fact, the Basse home originally had a Chicago Avenue address.

Most of the Basse home's 1920s-era features were intact when the Bells bought it, and the couple has continued to preserve and restore them.

"I've always been interested in preservation," said Marc, who grew up in Oak Park.

He and his wife hadn't seriously considered restoring the home's property lines, until the previous owners of 500 N. Euclid Ave. held an open house last year.

Marc remembers the listing clearly. "Developers welcome!" it proclaimed. As the Bells walked through their neighbor's home, they heard the real estate agent offering up different ideas for expansion.

"I was afraid that someone was going to tear it down and build a bigger house in front of us. That was really the last straw for me," said Marc. "It's either, I'm going to be moving, or I'm going to do this."

The Bells checked with the Village of Oak Park and urban planner Doug Kaarre, who provides staff support to the Historic Preservation Commission. They discovered that 500 N. Euclid Ave. was not considered a "contributing property" to the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District and could be demolished. Through their own Realtor, they negotiated the purchase and closed on the home in November, 2004.

Do I hear $1,000?

On a chilly Saturday morning a few weeks ago, Jodi Murphy stood on the kitchen countertop at the doomed house. Below her, a crowd of 30 or 40 people were wedged shoulder to shoulder. Murphy was about to auction off whatever was and wasn't nailed down. Her 17-year-old business, Murco Recycling, has sold the kitchens, fixtures, doors, floors, blinds and windows of hundreds of soon-to-be-demolished homes.

"People shop with us because we're cheap," Murphy explained earlier. "They wouldn't go through all the trials and tribulations unless it was affecting their bottom line in a positive way."

The "trials and tribulations" involve paying cash on the spot and physically removing purchases the same day. Many of Murphy's regular customers are contractors or building owners. Others are do-it-yourselfers. Murco takes 60 percent of an auction's profits.

"I didn't want to just knock the house down and have everything go to waste," said Marc, who discovered Murco through a contact in architectural salvage. "It wasn't so much of a money thing."

"Good materials go to good use and not in a landfill," Murphy noted.

The biggest attraction at the Bell's sale was a two-year-old, six-burner Viking cooktop: retail value more than $3,000, according to Murphy.

Oak Parkers Katrina and Rich Vignes, with their sleeping, 3-month-old daughter strapped snugly to his chest, came to investigate the cooktop for their own kitchen.

"I go to amuse myself," said Chicago contractor Rocco Corbino, who came to the sale on his birthday.

Murphy's auction did seem like entertainment. Scrawled in black marker around the home were customized pitches. "I'm ready to hang at your place!" read the message next to a chandelier. Murphy managed the bidding like a stand-up comedian.

"Bid like a madman! Don't be shy!" she encouraged the crowd. Someone new pressed into the kitchen, and she greeted him with, "Honey, how are you? You owe me $200."

The cooktop sold to a customer named Mario for $1,300. Murphy moved on to the stainless steel refrigerator.

The Bells reported a successful sale.

"Almost every reusable piece of equipment or item in there was used," said Arlene. "It was unbelievable."

"Parts of the building live on," added her husband.

Flashbang!

Less than 24 hours after Murco's customers dismantled what they could at 500 N. Euclid Ave., the Oak Park Police Department was on the premises.

"Our SWAT team used it for a training exercise," explained Deputy Police Chief Bob Scianna. "We had some role-players from the police department acting as bad guys. We practiced surveillance, planning, entry, tactics, communications. We used simunitions. We used flashbangs."

Scianna described simunitions as "a professional, police version of a paint ball." Flashbangs are "diversionary devices" that produce intense light and sound.

"That's what they throw in before the SWAT team goes in, if you've seen it on TV. It's very, very successful in disorienting anybody," he explained. "The whole purpose of this thing is so you can enter and take them into custody without any shots being fired. Safety is the number one issue for everyone involved."

"It looked like they were on TV," confirmed Marc, who observed some of the action outside. Large signs alerted passers-by to the practice exercise.

Scianna declined to divulge how many officers are on the SWAT team but reported that members train monthly and typically spend a week at an FBI training facility in Chicago.

"This is a finely tuned unit," he said.

Through the village, the police department looks for opportunities to utilize vacant buildings for training, then contacts owners.

"We practiced at the Mar-Lac house before that was destroyed. We had a three-flat apartment building where we did scenario-based training," he said. "This is the first actual single-dwelling house that we were able to get. It was extremely beneficial to be able to use an actual residence.

"Last year, I think we were faced with a barricaded subject in a single-dwelling home‚Ä"an actual event that we got called out on," Scianna added.

Oak Park has three historic districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places: the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District, the Ridgeland/Oak Park Historic District, and the Gunderson Historic District. In each district, the local 11-member Historic Preservation Commission provides added oversight and review of building permits.

"A property is either considered to be contributing or noncontributing to the character of the historic district," explained village urban planner Doug Kaarre. "Noncontributing properties can be demolished without commission review. They can be altered under advisory review."

The local ordinance defines a noncontributing property as one that "does not represent significant historical and/or aesthetic characteristics which qualify that district as a historic district under this article."

"There is a certain time period that the district represents," Kaarre explained. "For the Gunderson district, it's the years in which the subdivision was built, 1905 to 1911. For the Frank Lloyd Wright district, it's generally going to be from whenever the earliest house dates up to World War II."

A complete list of contributing properties exists for the Ridgeland/Oak Park and Gunderson districts, prepared by outside architectural consultants and approved by the commission. Because the Frank Lloyd Wright district was created in 1972‚Ä"Oak Park's first historic district and one of the first in the state‚Ä"a comprehensive list of properties was never required or created. The commission currently looks at properties on a case-by-case basis.

Under the commission's oversight, a group of 10 to 15 volunteers met for the first time in November to begin the process of establishing a contributing properties list for the Frank Lloyd Wright district.

"There's a wealth of information and research that's been done, for example, for the Wright Plus tours. One of the things they are doing is trying to compile all that together. At some point, they will probably have public meetings," Kaarre said.

Development in any part of the village must satisfy zoning requirements, including lot size.

‚Ä"Linda Downing Miller

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