Historic River Forest block stares down demolition

Developer seeks to raze home in first Prairie School planned development

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Lacey Sikora

River Forest historic preservation advocates are gearing up for another battle over a proposed demolition in the village. With the razing of the Mars Mansion fresh in the minds of many in the village, some residents point out that this time, the certificate of appropriateness for demolition concerns not just one house, but an entire block.

In 2016, the 700 block of William Street was honored for its significance as the first Prairie Style planned development, and the street was marked with commemorative street signs.

The block is the subject of a 2014 book by William Storrer, The Anonymous Frank Lloyd Wright and the 700 William Street River Forest Project, which posits that Wright was the anonymous architect of the homes.

While Storrer's theory has not been proven, the block's significance as the first Prairie School planned development in the state, and perhaps the country, brought residents together to seek recognition from the village.

In August 2017, River Forest residents Rob Sarvis and Mark Sullivan, as Mayborn Development, purchased 747 William for $415,000. On Sept. 11, a Historic Preservation Commission meeting was held at the home, and Sarvis, Sullivan, architect Pat Magner, commission members and members of the public toured the house.

According to notes of this meeting, Sarvis communicated that due to the condition of the house, it was most feasible to demolish the property and build new.

 On Sept. 20, Sarvis and Sullivan filed an application for a certificate of appropriateness seeking approval to demolish the home. In the initial application, Sarvis and Sullivan stated, "The building is structurally unsound, and to rehabilitate it is not a possibility nor is it feasible."

On Oct. 5, the Historic Preservation Commission held a special meeting to consider issuing a certificate of appropriateness for the demolition. More than 20 concerned neighbors and historic preservation advocates attended the meeting, many armed with copies of Storrer's books and historical research on the block.

No decision was made on the application at the Oct. 5 meeting. At the outset of the meeting, the village's management analyst, Jon Pape, stated that after consultation with the village attorney, the application was deemed incomplete and required site drawings and front, rear and side elevation drawings of the existing structure.

Preservation commissioners requested that the developer provide a report from a licensed structural engineer on the home as well as the items required to complete the application.

Once the application is complete, a date for public meeting will be set with notice provided on the village website, signs outside of the home, publications and letters to those living within 500 feet of the property.

During the public comment portion of the special meeting, many residents emphasized the historical significance of the block in arguing against demolition.

Sue Blaine stated that the significance of the home stems from the entire block as a whole, and cited Wright's Hills-De Caro House in Oak Park as an example of a home that had been altered but was rehabilitated in keeping with the original structure.

Neighbor Pat Heiman presented a petition from residents asking the commission to encourage the developer to renovate or build an addition to keep it in style with the rest of the homes on the block.

Mark Zinni, a former resident of the block and an architect who renovated many of the block's residences, noted that removing the residence from the block would be akin to removing a tooth from the smile of the street.

Sarvis responded that his intention was to create a home that fit with the block but that the existing home had many issues, including low ceilings and a problematic driveway that kept it from being the kind of house that people want to purchase today.

Under River Forest's new historic preservation ordinance, the Historic Preservation Commission does not have the authority to block demolition of a home that does not have local landmark status, but it can ask applicants for demolition permits to appear before the commission and delay a demolition for up to six months.

This is the first test of the amended ordinance, which was adopted in 2016.

Laurie Blazek, a resident of the block, wondered if there was a way to landmark the entire block, stating, "I'm just looking for a loophole to get the block landmarked because there is no other block like this in the country."

Commissioner Al Popowits commented that the underlying disagreement seemed to be whether houses in the village could be harvested by anyone who could afford to do so or whether they were a protected resource, but acknowledged that under the current limits on the village's powers it seemed like a compromise would be the best the village could hope for.

Commissioner Cara Graham-White remarked that lot of homes like 747 William St. do sell to interested buyers, saying, "If you're going to live in River Forest, you're probably going to live in an old house. If you don't like old houses, go to Naperville."

Members of the public in attendance applauded her comment.

Tom Zurowski, chairman of the commission was not present at the meeting, but noted that once the application is complete, the public meeting must take place within 60 days.

Within 15 days of that meeting, the commission has to issue a finding either issuing the certificate or denying it. If the commission denies the certificate, the applicants can appeal to the village board.

Zurowski acknowledged that if the commission denies the certificate, the house can still be demolished, but said the commission hopes to raise awareness of the value of significant properties with the six-month delay.

"It's our job to protect historical and architecturally significant properties," Zurowski.

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