Coonley in Crisis

?The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Coonley Coach House in Riverside needs immediate repairs. But who can afford to do them right?

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By BOB SKOLNIK

National Historic Landmark located in Riverside is in critical condition, but local preservationists find themselves in a quandary. How can they mandate expensive, historically accurate restoration repairs when the owner of the home can't afford them or is incapable of making them?

Members of Riverside's Preservation Commission find themselves debating whether they should allow cheaper, non-historic emergency repairs to a portion of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Avery Coonley estate or prohibit them and risk the property falling into even greater disrepair?

The office of the Cook County Public Guardian is asking the Riverside Preservation Commission to approve replacing the damaged and decaying original red clay roof of the Coonley Coach House with an asphalt roof. Many of the original clay tiles are broken, paint is peeling from the eaves and there is extensive water damage due to the leaky roof.

The commission tabled the request at its July 14 meeting and is expected to consider the request again at its Aug. 11 meeting according to Charles Pipal, the chairman of the nine-member commission.

The Coonley Coach House
The Coonley Coach House, part of the Coonley estate designed by Frank Lloyd Wright nearly 100 years ago, was built in 1911. It originally served as the stable, garage and boiler room for the estate. The entire Coonley complex, now divided among five owners, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1970.

It is also designated a Riverside landmark and, under the village code (like in Oak Park) a certificate of appropriateness must be issued before any exterior alteration, restoration or reconstruction can be done.

Carolyn Howlett, a 91-year-old widow, has lived in the coach house since 1953 when she and her husband, Jim, helped save the Coonley estate from proposed demolition and replacement by ranch houses. Architect Arnold Skow remodeled the estate's original stable and garage into living quarters for the Howletts. The Howletts liked to joke that they went to a garage sale and bought the garage, according to friends.

The roof currently leaks and the interior of the home is increasingly experiencing water damage according to a letter submitted to the Preservation Commission by Kathryn Balgley, a lawyer in the Public Guardian's office who represents Howlett. The letter further states the clay tiles are in extremely poor condition and need to be replaced and that Howlett's assets are far too limited to undertake a custom-made tile roof replacement.

The Public Guardian's office was appointed guardian of the estate and limited guardian of the person of Carolyn Howlett after a contested court hearing in May of 2004, according to Cook County Public Guardian Robert Harris. This means the Public Guardian's office is responsible for managing Howlett's financial affairs.

According to Harris, Howlett is suffering from a form of dementia, is physically infirm, and requires round the clock care and cannot afford the estimated $200,000 it would cost to replace the clay tile roof. Harris said that Howlett was not in a condition to be able to be interviewed for this story.

"She is not anywhere close to being in a financial condition to pay $200,000 for a new roof," said Harris. "The roof has a hole in it. We don't think it can be repaired. It would be an outrage and a shame for all concerned if she would have to move out of the house."

Asphalt or clay tiles?
The Public Guardian's office is asking the Preservation Commission to issue a certificate of appropriateness to allow a replacement asphalt roof that would cost an estimated $14,000. The application characterizes the proposed asphalt roof as "a temporary measure specifically intended to protect this architecturally significant structure from further deterioration and damage until Mrs. Howlett's passing at which time it can be sold to a person capable of restoring the building to its original greatness."

Preservation commissioners in Riverside, however, are afraid that the "temporary" repair may become permanent if the house changes hands in coming years. A new asphalt roof could easily serve the home's new owners for another 30 years.

Howlett's will calls for the home to given to the Art Institute of Chicago upon her death, according to Harris. Howlett was a professor of art education at the School of the Art Institute from 1937 to 1970 according to school officials, and taught generations of art teachers.

She was also an accomplished painter and wrote the book Art in Craftmaking: Basic Methods and Materials.

Her husband, Jim, was an illustrator and cartoonist at the now-defunct Chicago American and later the Chicago Tribune. Their home was also a working studio and filled with art, according to Tony Jones, the current president of the School of the Art Institute, who recalled a delightful five-hour lunch he had with the Howletts years ago.

The Preservation Commission is trying to come up with a better solution than an asphalt roof, according to Pipal.

"I asked for a creative solution," said Pipal, a restoration architect. "It is my inclination to deny the permit because of the significance of the building."

If the commission does not issue the certificate of appropriateness, the Public Guardian can appeal for a certificate of economic hardship. That would require a public hearing by the Preservation Commission with public testimony by all interested parties. Then the commission would vote and issue its recommendation to the Riverside village board, which would have the final say.

In the meantime, the house continues to slowly deteriorate.

One member of the commission, Ted Smith, who has lived on another part of the Coonley estate for 25 years, said that approving the asphalt roof may be necessary.

"We will almost certainly grant it," Smith said. "The alternative is to let the house fall down. The reason for the delay is we're hoping to find someone with a better solution. Something has got to be done to keep a national landmark intact."

Pipal is more optimistic that a better solution can be found. He fears that an architecturally inappropriate asphalt roof would become permanent.

"Repairs that are deemed temporary often become permanent," said Pipal.

Dean Eastman, who owns part of the main residence of the Coonley estate and undertook an expensive and painstaking restoration of the home after he purchased it, agreed that putting an asphalt roof on the coach house would be less than ideal.

"To change the roof is a large change to the architecture and the aesthetics of the house and the surrounding estate," said Eastman. "The roof on a Frank Lloyd Wright house is a very large part of the architecture. It is one of the most visible parts of the house."

Howlett is very proud of her house, say those who know her and, according to one neighbor, would not wish to mar it with an asphalt roof.

"She wouldn't want it," said Jerry Buttimer, who lives across the street from Howlett. "There is no doubt in my mind. She would want to do it the right way."

The problem is that the doing it "the right way" would cost more than Howlett can currently afford to pay, according to the Public Guardian's office.

The first step will be a detailed examination of the roof by a team of preservation architects, according to David Bahlman, president of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois (LPCI). That examination will be completed in early August.

"The tile roof is a very important component of the house," said Bahlman, who was alerted to the situation by Pipal, who is on the board of the LPCI.

Smith fears that the examination will show extensive damage.

"The greatest uncertainty is that the leaking roof might just be the start of it," said Smith. Until such an examination, all estimates are only guesses, according to Smith, and he fears that the $200,000 figure for a replacement tile roof might be low.

Searching for a solution
Pipal, who said he has "a lot of resources available ... relative to the preservation community" is trying to figure out how money can be raised and aid structured. Most aid programs are not geared to private owners. As a general policy, the LPCI makes grants only to non-profits, according to Bahlman.

However, Bahlman indicated that the LPCI was interested in finding a solution for funding.

"We have just started to try to pull together a group that would underwrite the cost of a replacement roof," Bahlman said. "It's too soon to comment. I just don't know at this point what might be done."

The Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy, based in Chicago, sometimes makes grants to private owners, but almost always in ways that allow it to recoup its investment almost immediately.

Pipal has also contacted the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The National Trust sometimes has emergency funds available and might be able to make a grant of between $1,000 and $5,000 according to Chris Morris, the Illinois field representative for the National Trust of Historic Preservation. But Morris said that the National Trust only makes grants for buildings owned by non-profits and governments.

Some have suggested that a reverse mortgage might be a solution, but Harris said that his office has investigated that idea, and the most it could provide would be around $200,000. While it might be enough to pay for a replacement roof, it would not benefit Howlett, and his office has a duty to act in her best interest. A reverse mortgage might also interfere with Howlett's wish to give the home to the Art Institute upon her death.

Pipal believes the preservation community owes it to Carolyn Howlett to try to find a better solution than an asphalt roof.

"She's the principal reason that complex is preserved," said Pipal. "If it was not for her voice those buildings wouldn't be there. We owe a deep debt of gratitude to her for her efforts in saving these buildings. If the preservation community at large could find a solution to her problems then we owe it to her and to those buildings."

If the money can be raised to pay for a tile roof, the Cook County Public Guardian would have no objection.

"We would be ecstatic if they could raise the funds," said Harris. "Our priority is to maintain her in the home and community."

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