The lay of the landmarks

Six Oak Park buildings join a growing list of local landmarks

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By LAURA STUART

We're old and proud of it. Oak Park has a history, particularly in its architecture, that "other communities would kill for," says Doug Kaarre, the village's urban planner. That's why Kaarre and the Historic Preservation Commission are pushing full speed ahead to protect that history, one building at a time.

Since December, six more buildingsâ€"five single-family homes and one condominiumâ€"have been designated as local landmarks. None of them are located in historic districts, so without the landmark status they would have no protection against alteration or destruction. Their addition brings the total number of local landmarks to 27, an increase of nine in just the last year.

The new local landmarks are: The Poley Building, 408-410 Austin Blvd.; Harold C. Lewis House, 950 Columbian Ave.; Andreas Brisch House, 701 S. East Ave.; George and James Tough House, 1045 Wesley Ave.; Margaret Morse House, 1036 Fair Oaks Ave.; and Albert Schneider House, 553 N. Marion St.

Owners of local landmarks are subject to restrictions on destructive, damaging or arbitrary exterior alterations (any proposed changes must be reviewed and approved), and are virtually prevented from tearing them down. They're also eligible for significant property tax relief in the form of a tax freeze program, technical assistance and architectural advice.

Oak Park's 1994 historic preservation ordinance, part of the village code, spells out the process, qualifying criteria, protections and restrictions for local landmarks. Designating a landmark requires an impressive amount of paperwork, a public hearing, and review by the Historic Preservation Commission and the village board (the board actually sees the nomination twiceâ€"once to accept the commission's recommendation and again for final approval).

What makes a building worthy of being landmarked? There are a number of criteria but basically, Kaarre explains, it has to be "architecturally significant, significant because it's the site of an event or related to a person of importance, designed by a famous architect or has some special feature that makes it unique."

Several years ago, the commission identified about 50 Oak Park properties it considered worthy of landmark status; Kaarre has been sending
out mailingsâ€"so far only to addresses outside of historic districtsâ€"to encourage owners to pursue it. An owner's consent is not required, but Kaarre won't go forward without it, "as a matter of principle."

Once the owner's on board, Kaarre puts together the nomination and sets the process in motion.

Although it might seem like Oak Park is on its way to landmarking the whole town, "I've heard the joke and it's not true," says Kaarre. "People take it for granted how significant Oak Park is. I don't think we've even reached our potential. There are significant properties out there that are not designated landmarks or in historic districts."

It's "not on the radar" now, but Kaarre would like to add one and maybe two more historic districts. Of particular interest is the area north of Division Street, the last part of the village to be developed. Many of the houses date to the 1920s and are Classical and Tudor Revival in style, significantly different from homes in other parts of Oak Park, he explains.

Sorting out
landmark status

The intricacies of historic preservation can be a bit confusing. Along with its locally designated landmarks, Oak Park also has nine buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places and three historic districts.

The National Register is the United States' official list of cultural resources deemed worthy of preservation for their significance to American history. It's administered by the National Park Service and offers no protection against demolition or alteration.

Oak Park also has three nationally recognized historic districts: the Ridgeland/Oak Park Historic District, the Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie School of Architecture Historic District, and the Gunderson Historic District. About a third of the homes in the village
are located in these historic districts, but not all
of those homes are considered landmarks.
However, owners of property within the districts
do qualify for many of the same benefits and are
subject to many of the restrictions of those with landmark status.

Property tax relief

Probably the main benefit to owners of buildings in any of these categories, aside from a desire to ensure protection of their properties by future owners, is eligibility for a property tax freeze. It's offered by the State of Illinois to encourage renovation of historic homes. Owners who spend at least 25 percent of their home's assessed valuation (the value on the property tax bill, not market value) on approved rehabilitation can freeze their property taxes for eight years at the level they were before the work started. For the following four years, the taxes increase until they get to market level at year 12. The state has to approve the plans and the work, although it can be done retroactively.

A chance to freeze their property taxes was certainly an incentive for Richard and Linda Reiter, owners of the George and James Tough House. The large brick American Four Square at 1045 Wesley Ave. was built by George Tough, a prominent early south Oak Park resident. The Reiters recently replaced the home's roof and gutters, painted the exterior, and plan to redo two bathroomsâ€"projects that will more than qualify them for the welcome tax break.

They were surprised to receive the invitation to apply for landmark status, but were happy to agree. "It's a beautiful house. It should be preserved," Linda says.

The possibility of freezing property taxes was good news to Evelyn and Robert Allen, too. Owners of Allen Realty & Builders, they bought the Albert Schneider House at 553 N. Marion St. a year ago with the intention of restoring and selling it. Their buyer will be able to take advantage of the tax freezeâ€"the only instance when the benefit is transferable from one owner to another.

But Evelyn says they also felt the Queen Anne had historic significance because of its original owner, Albert Schneider, the head of a prominent Oak Park family. And even though she and Robert are in a bit of a dispute with the village over how best to restore (replace?) the home's windows, she doesn't regret accepting the landmark status.

"We'll do what's best," she says. "We're restorers; we have pride in what we're doing in the community."

New local landmarks

In December 2004, the village board designated four buildings as Oak Park landmarks and in February added two more. That brings the total of local landmarks to 27. Details below are summarized from the historic landmark application forms prepared by Doug Kaarre, urban planner for the Village of Oak Park.

 

• Poley Building, 408-410 S. Austin Blvd. Now known as Parkview West Condominiums, this three-story brick building is significant for its Tudor Revival style and its architect, Charles Kristen. Kristen designed over 70 Oak Park homes in the 1920s and '30s, the majority in the Tudor Revival style.

• Harold C. Lewis House, 950 Columbian Ave. This 1928 Spanish Colonial Revival style house, at the southeast corner of Columbian Avenue and Berkshire Street, uses decorative details from the entire history of Spanish architecture. It's a rarity in Oak Park.

• Andreas Brisch House, 701 S. East Ave. Built in 1919, this south Oak Park home is an excellent example of the Chicago Bungalow, a one-and-a-half story brick structure with a raised basement, dormers, a rectangular footprint, and a low-pitched hipped roof with overhanging eaves.

• George and James Tough House, 1045 Wesley Ave. This American Four Square is an example of an extremely popular style in early 20th century Oak Park, particularly south of Madison Street. It was built by a notable early resident, George Tough, a successful grain merchant who was president of Suburban Trust and Savings Bank, a member of the school board and the Village Board of Trustees.

• Albert Schneider House, 553 N. Marion St. The circa 1899 Victorian is significant for its Queen Anne style and its original owner, Albert Schneider, the head of a prominent early Oak Park family. The owner of five acres between Marion Street and Harlem Avenue, bisected by what's now Schneider Avenue, Schneider kept the property for his family's use instead of subdividing it. The homes of two of his sons, successful Oak Park businessmen, also remain.

• Margaret Morse House, 1036 Fair Oaks Ave. Built in 1926 by Prairie School architect and Oak Park native John Van Bergen, this house is a rare local example of Van Bergen's later "Highland Park" style. Limestone replaces stucco as the material used in the main body of the house.

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