RF Women's Club gets private buyer

? River Forester with Art Institute ties pledges preservation of faded "architectural gem" on Ashland Ave.

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By BILL DWYER

Life long River Forest resident Paul Coffey used to play "in the shadows" of the River Forest Women's Club on Ashland Avenue. Now he's going to live in it.

Coffey confirmed Tuesday that he has signed a contract to purchase the historically significant and unique 92-year-old building from the club's board of directors.

Coffey, who is the director of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, hesitated to discuss many details of the purchase, saying that "there are still things that need to be worked out."

Coffey wanted to stress that the building was secure in his hands.

"The future of the building is secure," he said flatly. "The furthest thing from my mind is to tear this thing down."

Saying that he intended to make the sale process as "transparent" as possible, Coffey said that more details would be released as arrangements are finalized.

"Very serious people are involved with this," Coffey said.

Coffey did say that the River Forest Woman's Club will continue to be allowed to meet in the building well into the foreseeable future.

"This is not a case of anyone trying to kick elderly women out of their club," he said. "It's quite the opposite."

Attorney Albert George, Jr., who represents the interests of the Women's Club in the sale, stated emphatically Monday that the club's board of directors never intended to allow the building to be torn down by developers, despite the concerns of some. Many people in and around River Forest regard the building as an architectural treasure, and have expressed concern that it might face the wrecking ball. Preservation activists such as Oak Park's Marty Hackl have consistently voiced concern that the women's club, which is protected by no local, state or federal laws, was vulnerable to demolition by a developer who may be attracted to the site's deep double lot.

Those fears were underscored last fall when the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois (LPCI) placed the building on its Chicagoland Watch List. In March of this year, the LPCI named the structure one of the Ten Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois.

George insisted, however, that the club's board of directors has always shared those concerns, and said there was never any real chance that the Women's Club would be demolished.

"There was never any contemplation of tearing the building down," he said. "(Club board members) really feel an obligation and responsibility to make sure the building isn't drastically changed or torn down."

When asked if the board intended to work with the LPCI to assure the historic integrity of the structure, which was designed by noted Prairie Style architect William Drummond, George replied, "Absolutely."

LPCI President David Bahlman confirmed that there has been cooperation between the parties Monday, saying that his organization has been in regular contact with the club, and continues to stand ready to assist in any way it can.

Bahlman made it clear that time is of the essence.

"Our interest is in quickly doing whatever needs to be done to protect this structure," he said, stressing that the building is fragile and in desperate need of rehab. "One can't wait another year for something to happen."

Part of the delay, said George, has been due to the club's management agreement with the River Forest Park District. That arrangement, which Park District Executive Director Tom Grundin called "quid pro quo," expired April 30. For the past three years the park board had been assuming all maintenance and upkeep costs, as well as heating bills that went as high as $1,400 per month. Last February the park board decided that operating the club did not fit in with its core functions, and the women's club is now once again responsible for those expenses, despite having no outside revenues except for member dues, according to George.

That stark financial reality, George said, was at the center of the debate within the club over how to proceed. Putting a historic preservation easement on prior to any sale, he said, would have significant effects on the desirability of the property, and could drastically reduce its value. With that in mind, club leadership has been working to assure that the deal is as good as possible for any potential buyer.

"The debate was always whether to put an easement on prior to the sale, or simultaneous with it," George said.

Bahlman strongly agreed, saying that the club's ultimate decision would impact any potential tax advantages to the new owner. The women's club, he explained, has one shot to get it right in terms of any easement.

"You donate an easement once, and it's perpetual," he said. "The only one who can benefit from the easement is the one who donates it."

While saying that there is "no stock figure" available from the IRS, Bahlman said that historically the tax break is roughly 10 percent of the sale price of the building. Additionally, the private donor of a preservation easement may be eligible for an eight to ten year property tax freeze, depending on how much is spent on rehabbing the structure.

Bahlman was hesitant to discuss specific dollar amounts for the restoration process, but said that any new owner would be assuming a hefty obligation.

"If they spend a half million dollars to purchase it, that's probably half of what it will take," he said. "There are some extraordinary repairs and rehab that need to be done."

Bahlman didn't appear to wish to take sides on the public versus private ownership debate. But while acknowledging that there are those who will be unhappy that the club may pass from public to private use, he noted that there had been little interest by financially qualified organizations to take over the property and assume the heavy financial obligations involved.

"I don't see any historical societies or arts groups standing by with half a million dollars to buy it, and with the means to (pay) another half a million to rehab it," he said.

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