For four decades, the corner of Lake and Forest in Downtown Oak Park has often been connected with plans for high-rise construction, including the residential and commercial tower now planned for the vacant lot at the northeast corner.
But the first "skyscraper" at the corner was Oak Park's first brick school, built more than 150 years ago at the southeast corner of the intersection. The only remaining traces of that pioneer building is a simple stone plaque amid landscaping along Lake Street, historic photos like the one shown here, and the school bell donated to The Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest more than 40 years ago.
Cast in West Troy, N.Y. in 1869, the bell was first installed soon after in the bell tower of the original Oak Ridge School (later Central School) and served as both a school bell and a communication system to call volunteer firefighters to their duties in emergencies. When the original section of the school was replaced with a brand new building called Lowell School in 1924, the bell was re-installed in the building.
It stopped being used as a school after World War II but offices remained and an auditorium for District 97 until it was demolished in 1972. The Lowell School site was sold to developer Jonas Stankus and the site remained vacant for nearly 15 years after his 56-story twin skyscrapers were rejected. It became known, infamously, as the "Stankus Hole." In 1985, 100 Forest Place rose on the lot.
And yes, the bell still rings! School children who visit the Historical Society have the chance to hear the same gongs that called children of the 1870s to school each morning.
The Historical Society is the repository of this bell and tens of thousands of artifacts and materials available to the community for research and through exhibits and programs. As the Historical Society prepares to begin its renovation later this year of its new home at 129 Lake St. in Oak Park, at the southeast corner of Lake Street and Lombard Avenue, watch for more stories of Hometown Treasures here in the pages of Wednesday Journal. Or check out www.oprfhistory.org.
An Open House of the new museum site is planned from 4 to 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 24. No reservations required.