The River Forest Women's Club and the 1100 block of Westgate have been included in the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois's "Ten Most Endangered Historic Places for 2005" list.
"This list calls attention to remarkable sites throughout the state," said LPCI President David Bahlman last Wednesday. But while the designation may help raise the profile of the structures in ongoing struggles to preserve them, it offers no legal protections. Situated on a wide, deep lot in a residential neighborhood, the River Forest Women's Club is an inviting candidate to tear down and redevelop in a village with next to no remaining open space.
Mounting maintenance costs and dwindling membership have forced club officials to seek an individual or organization possessing adequate financial means to renovate the structure and utilize it as a public resource. Whoever assumes ownership of the club would be required to accept a preservation easement on the property and agree to continue to maintain it. The River Forest Park District had been negotiating on and off with the Women's Club over the past two years about taking over the building, but recently announced that it has no interest in purchasing the structure, and will not continue to operate and maintain the building after April 30.
Bahlman said Tuesday that the LPCI has been involved for two years with its own preservation efforts related to the Women's Club, which was placed on its Watch List last fall. His group is attempting to attract an interested owner with the means to both renovate the structure and utilize it in a manner consistent with its original intended purpose, as a site for meetings and public events.
"We actually offered to accept ownership of the building and were willing to improve it to make it more marketable," said Bahlman, who added that he's come to town twice in the past year to discuss the issue with the club's board. That board, he said, voted to donate a preservation easement to the LPCI "six or eight months ago," but never got around to actually giving it to the group.
"We haven't gotten a response from the Women's Club in six months," said Bahlman.
Laurel McMahon, who is both president of the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest and a member of the ad hoc committee formed to advise the village board on the creation of a permanent Historic Preservation Commission, echoed Bahlman's concerns last Friday, stressing that the building's beauty and historical significance, while compelling, offers no legal protection from redevelopment.
"The issue is, there is no protection of that building," McMahon said Friday. "You must rely on people's good will alone. There's nothing to keep this from being developed."
The Westgate area in Oak Park, which Bahlman characterizes as "a tremendously charming block of late '20s English Rival Tudor structures," faces partial demolition as part of a proposed Downtown Master Plan.
Village-hired planning consultants Crandall and Arambula have said tearing down some of the buildings is necessary to create a new street that would run from the transit station on North Boulevard through to Lake Street. The street is highly recommended by Crandall and Arambula to relieve traffic congestion downtown.
That overall plan will be discussed and voted on by the Oak Park village board Monday, and LPCI staff will be present at a public meeting Thursday night in Oak Park to discuss ways that the Westgate complex can be incorporated into the master plan before its final approval. The meeting, which will be sponsored by the Oak Park Architectural League and the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest, is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Pleasant Home, 217 Home Ave.
"We think that there's an alternate, compromise plan that would at least spare some of the most important buildings," said Bahlman. He identified that section as the buildings at the east end of Westgate.
"The buildings in the eastern end of the block are more intact and more [architecturally] important than the buildings at the west end."