11th hour attempt to keep RF Women's Club public fizzles

? RF Women's Club members decline to attend Monday meeting to discuss deeding building to Historical Society.

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A last ditch effort to retain regular public use of the soon-to-be-sold River Forest Women's Club failed Monday when Women's Club president Marilyn Organ allegedly declined to attend a meeting with probable owner Paul Coffey and Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest president Laurel McMahon.

Proponents of the continued public use of the River Forest Women's Club, led by River Forest resident Patty O'Conner, had hoped to persuade Organ and other members of the club's board to agree to donate the structure to the Historical Society. The club is at 526 Ashland in River Forest.

O'Conner said Monday that Coffey had expressed a willingness late last week to step aside for the Historical Society, saying, according to O'Conner, that he would be willing to withdraw his offer "if there is a realistic offer" from another source.

Coffey confirmed Tuesday that he was willing to sit down with representatives of the Historical Society and the Women's Club on Monday, saying "I was willing to consider all options." However, when informed Monday morning by Historical Society president Laurel McMahon that no one from the Women's Club would attend the meeting, and that therefore McMahon herself therefore saw no reason to attend, Coffey withdrew. Organ could not be reached for comment.

"They didn't seem to have any interest in reconsidering," said McMahon, who said that O'Conner had approached her last week about attending the meeting.

A weary sounding Coffey said that there have been several misrepresentations regarding public access to the Women's Club building in the future. Chief among them is the contention by some that the building's unique performance space will no longer be available to outside groups.

Coffey said that's simply not the case.

"There has been no fact checking," said Coffey of certain accusations. "The stage is going to be protected."

Coffey said that not only has he been working with the community "and seeing how we can stay involved with the community," he has agreed to a historic easement covering the second floor performance area in addition to the four exterior walls.

"There's only one other building in the state that has an interior easement," he said.

As for continued public involvement, Coffey said that the agreement formally calls for the club to be open "at least once a year," but insisted that he was more than willing to consider additional public use.

"We're willing to consider any and all offers from people who come to us," he said.

Village President Frank Paris echoed the sentiments of several others Monday when he said that while he would have preferred a more public use of the building, "Coffey's offer was a very good second choice."

Around a dozen people who would have preferred the building remain a public asset gathered outside the Women's Club at 1 p.m. Monday, including O'Conner and outspoken preservationist Marty Hackl.

Among other things, O'Conner expressed concern that she had heard that certain valuable items in the Women's Club, including antique chairs designed by the architect, as well as china and other valuables, were not being disposed of in a beneficial manner.

In fact, a board member present Monday who said she wished to remain anonymous, said she was there to meet with Marilyn Organ regarding the donation of numerous items to the Salvation Army. She would not talk about any specifics, saying that it was the club's private business.

Contacted Tuesday morning, club attorney Al George said that the group's board made the decision they did out of concern for the maintenance of the historic structure. George confirmed that the club had contacted several local organizations several years ago regarding taking over the building, but that those offers didn't work out.

"There were a number of proposals tendered," said George. "What we were doing was negotiating a use and occupancy agreement," he said. "It was not going to be a donation."

However, River Forest park district Director Tom Grundin said Tuesday that the park district had been negotiating with the club's board to assume the building. A draft agreement, said Grundin, mentioned the possibility of the club donating the building if the district assumed responsibility for renovation and maintenance.

"We wouldn't have bought it," said Grundin. "The only way we would have gone into it was at no cost."

Rev. Ken Fischer of St. Luke's Church said a group from his church was given a tour of the club by Marilyn Organ "back in 2001-2002," and the building was subsequently offered to them for "either a dollar or at no cost."

Both the park district and St. Luke's declined to assume that responsibility, citing the high costs.

"The space didn't suit our needs, and the cost of maintaining it was more of a burden than a help," said Fischer.

McMahon said the Historical Society's board had been "very excited " last February about the prospect of obtaining the club after the River Forest park board declined to take it over. But, she said, they were unable to initiate any dialogue with the Women's Club board.

"We never heard back from them, so we assumed they'd made other arrangements," she said.

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