Four weeks into her job as president of Landmarks Illinois, Bonnie McDonald is at The Buzz Café in Oak Park, grabbing a quick breakfast before catching the Blue Line into work.
So, on a recent Wednesday, in between bites of gluten-free toast and jam, the 37-year-old preservationist and architectural historian from Minnesota is articulating her hopes and goals as she begins the journey of leading her Chicago-based historic preservation advocacy group into an era of expanded growth.
On this day, however, she is also chatting about living in Oak Park. McDonald's first encounter with this architecturally-rich Chicago suburb was via her college coursework. Back then, she learned that this is the village that is internationally known for having the most Frank Lloyd Wright designed buildings anywhere in the world, plus, architecturally speaking, a lot more.
"Oak Park is laid out in a way that you as a pedestrian can get to know it very well at your own pace, so I am making an effort to walk and bike to destinations in the village, and that is an excellent way to get to know a place and its architecture," she says.
McDonald credits her predilection toward the areas of art history, architecture and preservation to having grown up in a "first-string" suburb of Minneapolis/St. Paul, eventually settling into Blaine, a "second string" suburb that became her family's springboard to educational explorations throughout her home state. Those formative years, she muses, were the seminal moments that led her to her life's work.
"The field of historic preservation is my passion, and it is really about place making, community health, and culture," says McDonald, who holds a Master of Arts in Historic Preservation Planning from Cornell University, and a Bachelor of Arts in Art History from the University of Minnesota. "Not only just a sense of place, but also focusing on the real fabric that has built the community, and then seeing how the layers of time, and the new people who come to a community can continue to enrich the existing heritage with their own culture as well."
Prior to joining Landmarks Illinois, McDonald was the executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota. There, she earned a reputation for creating, fostering and managing partnerships with an array of groups and individuals across professional disciplines, including donors, public officials, business and civic leaders, and organized labor.
Now, on Cuyler Avenue, across the street from a few historically significant three-flats, McDonald and her fiancé are residing in a quaint 100-year-old gable front cottage with "a lot of character."
"Even the small things make a difference to an architectural historian," she laughs. "We found a place where we could rent to determine if this is a community that will engage us. So far, I do believe so."
In the next hour or so, she sipped her coffee and told Wednesday Journal why.
How did you choose your profession?
I went to the University of Minnesota to major in art history. Then, I noticed that I wrote all my papers about architecture. Eventually, a friend of mine, who was taking a course in historic preservation, said 'why don't you take a course in historic preservation?' It was like a light bulb, or more like a spotlight, went on for me. I found out where I was supposed to be.
In your new post, what do you want to accomplish?
Landmarks Illinois has a special mission to advance historic preservation statewide, so I am committed to broadening the constituencies who care about preservation as a means to preserve, protect and promote architectural and historic resources, and who understand the tremendous impact that preservation has on economic development and community building.
Historic structures are the vessels of our communities' memories. They also are part of the economic value of our communities. In this current budgetary circumstance, communities across Illinois can ill afford to demolish the entire community and re-build it from the ground up. Even taking aside what that does to the environment, and how that destroys the culture and sense of a place, it simply is not economically feasible.
Why do you want to grow the reach of Landmarks Illinois?
Landmarks Illinois is 41 years old, and what we are about is creating vibrant, healthy places for people to live, and work and invest in. In Minnesota, for example, I was able to work with many, many partners to enact legislation that helped to incentivize and catalyze historic preservation activity. I was also able to start learning more about how historic preservation is really about economic development and sustainability. In Illinois, I would like to continue the conversation that was happening in Minnesota.
Isn't some of that conversation already taking place?
Yes. As I am learning more about all of our programs, [I found] we actually do have a great deal of statewide coverage already, but not many people know this about us. So, it is also communicating how we are adding value to communities from Chicago, in suburban areas, and across the rest of the state. All historical preservation is local, and if we can talk about those values in a way that we can [encourage] preservation, and do more education, I think we will be successful in increasing the amount of preservation activity we do in Illinois.
Why did you choose to live in Oak Park?
In this community, geographically it is relatively small, but there is a wealth of resources here to explore. It is also such a walkable, pedestrian-friendly place. That again speaks to the historic resources of this particular city. Obviously the community here supported all that, especially those avant-garde architects and what they were doing, and now the community has continued to preserve them. It also is a place that has an ethic that is similar to mine — sustaining the environment, promoting and supporting small businesses, and being good stewards, not only of these historic buildings, but also of the community.