Creator of Oak Park Village Hall was the architect's architect

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Garret Eakin

Recently I attended a lecture presented by Robert Bruegmann, the author of a new book, The Architecture of Harry Weese. This was much more than a lecture.

Nearly filling the monumental Seventeenth Church of Christ on Wacker Drive in Chicago were friends, associates, employees, academics, politicians and of course architects. It was like a homecoming seeing all those faces that have been lost for years. The atmosphere was somber, akin to a wake, and inspirational, reminiscent of a reunion to reconsider this fine architect in this vast space designed by Weese.

The event made me recall how important this complicated leader was to Chicago. As a young architect working at Skidmore Owing and Merrill, I remember gathering information about planning, architecture and restoration. For more insight I would search through the publications to find the ever present interview of Weese and what his position was? His perceptive thoughts were the consciousness of our profession. Weese always had an opinion, usually clear, intelligent and delivered with conviction. He was the voice of the profession. He was the architect's architect.

Oak Park and River Forest has scores of buildings to admire, and high on my list is the brilliant design of our Village Hall by Weese. Built in 1974 on East Madison, after 37 years it has eloquently served a very intense and demanding community. The square plan with centered cloistered courtyard was inspired by the work of Finish architect Alvar Aalto, specifically the Seinajoki Town Hall in Finland. The democratic ideal of having a clear and accessible government is realized in this unique plan. The geometric open layout is radically different than your traditional city hall with the typical entry hall full of doors and a counter with a receptionist to handle the foot traffic.

Bill Dring, an accomplished local architect, served as the project manager for Weese. Dring recalled how the concept for the design was born. The design team visited a respected North Shore village hall, carefully considering the traditional plan and architecture. Following the tour, the village leaders remarked that now the architects have seen what they did not want to build in Oak Park. Based on this reaction to the status quo, the concept of a modern open plan reflecting a transparent democratic government was born. Dring recalls that Weese was not a big fan of Frank Lloyd Wright. Weese coveted this commission as an opportunity to "pee in the master's backyard," according to Dring.

Viewed from Madison, the façade is modern with its geometric shapes, patterns of flush reflective glass and floating ramp leading to the council chambers. The square plan breaks to define a largely monumental entrance, which is seldom used yet vital to identifying this building as an important public structure. I love the choice of the traditional brick (similar to Chicago common), the pattern of windows organized by the expansion joints and the inventive detail of the triangular brick boiler chimney at the northwestern corner. Contrasting the precision of the architectural patterns, Weese introduced ivy growing up the masonry walls to soften the surfaces with texture and color. The courtyard continues the landscape scheme with trellis dripping with ivy and specimen trees in planters.

Village Hall's interior volume is three dimensional defined by natural materials: heavy timber framing, terracotta tile flooring and natural wood trim. The warm palate of materials is illuminated by a strip of windows placed high on the exterior walls and balanced by glass walls opening to the landscaped courtyard. The composition produces an inviting and informal space to conduct the business of government. Weese's voice is gone yet his message defining egalitarian government has been perpetuated through this boldly crafted and humanly scaled Village Hall.

Oak Parker Garret Eakin is a practicing architect, a Historic Preservation Commissioner and an Adjunct Professor at the School of the Art Institute.

Reader Comments

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OP Resident  

Posted: March 12th, 2011 1:09 PM

The interior has been significantly altered over the years. The openness has been replaced with clutter and excessive signage.

Richard from Oak Park  

Posted: March 11th, 2011 9:41 AM

It really is a great building. Thank you for this feature.

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