Squaring off: porch issue may go before village board

• Couple wants square columns instead of the round Corinthian ones their Gunderson home was built with. Historic Preservation Commission says no.

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It is a nice porch, just not the right porch, that Gunderson homeowners want to build, the Historic Preservation Commission ruled Monday night.

The commission voted 5-1 to deny the bid by Richard Carroll and Joyce Hopkins, 747 S. Elmwood Ave., to replace their original but decrepit porch with another design fitting with the Gunderson Historic District. They said removal of the original porch constituted a "demolition," which requires an exact replica of the existing structure be built.

Carroll and Hopkins wanted to replace their round columns, topped with Corinthian capitals, with square columns in more of an Arts and Crafts style, and make other changes.

The 13 neighbors who spoke in support of the renovationâ€"most of whom have lived in Oak Park at least twice as long as the dozen years Carroll and Hopkins haveâ€"called for "common sense" to prevail and for "a little bit of humanity" at the April 18 public hearing.

"I've driven down the street 30 years. I couldn't tell you what kind of capitals [Carroll] has," said Terrence Murray, 743 S. Ridgeland Ave.

Joshua Rolock, 839 S. Ridgeland, said homes in the Gunderson district were not individually unique, but that the contiguous nature of that many foursquare homes built around the same time was what made the district historic.

He added that Gundersons were "cafeteria houses," whereby the owner having the house built got to choose certain elements of the design, and any given house could have had any of the porches offered.

At issue for neighbors was the perception they were given at a number of community meetingsâ€"before the Gunderson district was established in 2002â€"that the commission would be advisory only.

"It seems to me the commission is exceeding its authority," said Jim Madigan, 805 S. Elmwood Ave.

"We are the people who own these homes, not the village," said Richard Shaulis, 747 S. Ridgeland. He said the turnout of approximately 25 people at the commission's meeting would be greater if the matter comes before the village board.

"When this historical status occurred on my home, it was clearly spelled out that if I wanted to change my house, I would get the advice of you folks [the commission], not that it'd be a mandatory thing," said David Rey, 709 S. Ridgeland Ave. He said not allowing work to be done was a "potential encroachment on my rights," and homeowners should be able to replace elements with ones consistent with the district.

"If they were going to put in a goofy gazebo or spaceship, OK," Rey said.

Ordinance trumps 'common sense'

That residents had a "misunderstanding" of what it means to live in a historic district was important, said Doug Gilbert, historic commission chair. "I certainly hope the commission never misrepresented itself," he said, adding that none of the current members were on the commission when the Gunderson district was established.

But despite any misconceptions or impassioned pleas, Gilbert reminded commissioners once the hearing had been closed that they needed to base their decisions on how the plan fit with ordinances and guidelines established to judge proposed renovations.

Gilbert said the commission has a "pretty good case history" for when a renovation triggers the need for a Certificate of Appropriateness, or COA, needed to demolish any significant structure in a historic district.

"It's not just our common sense; it's what the ordinance says," said Frank Lipo.

Voting against the motion to deny Carroll and Hopkins a COA for their porch was Jack Lesniak, who was part of the 3-member committee that originally ruled against the chosen porch design before the matter was heard by the entire commission. Both meetings took place before Monday's public hearing.

During deliberations Monday night, Lesniak said he was not convinced that tearing down the porch in order to rebuild a slightly different one constituted a demolition.

"I think there's a difference," Lesniak said.

Other commissioners disagreed, saying anytime there's a demolition, something else is built. Lesniak did not speak the rest of the meeting until he voted "No" at the end.

Commission member Doug Freerksen said the governing ordinances and guidelines did not clearly indicate whether the commission had an advisory or binding role in the absence of a building being a landmark. Carroll argued that on the cover of the commission's guidelines it states that the rules are advisory for non-landmark buildings.

"I think we're in an area that's not crystal clear," Freerksen said.

But Gilbert said that ordinances are rarely clear, and that the commission's legal counsel ruled that village ordinance makes clear the commission's role in determining whether to issue a COA, despite the misleading nature of the statement on the guidelines' cover.

Owner will appeal to village board

Carroll said before the hearing Monday that he didn't expect the commission to reverse its previous rulings not to issue a COA. But he will appeal the case to the village board, continuing the struggle he began in January.

Asked why he wouldn't relent and just build the columns original to the house, he said, "Mainly because we don't like it." The couple has redone the home's interior in an Arts and Crafts style, and would like to echo those elements on the exterior.

They researched the Gunderson district to find appropriate replacement details, and found two other homes that had the kind of columns they want for their home. Two other homes have the Corinthian columns presently on the Carroll/Hopkins home, Carroll said.
CONTACT: dcarter@wjinc.com

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