Roof repair limbo

Riverside Preservation Commission wants comprehensive report on condition of roof at Wright-designed Coonley Coach House

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For the second straight month the Riverside Preservation Commission declined to vote on a request from the Cook County Public Guardian to put an asphalt roof on the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Coonley Coach House in Riverside. The coach house is owned by 91-year-old-widow Carolyn Howlett, whose affairs have been handled by the Public Guardian's office since May 2004 because she is suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

At the close of a sometimes contentious meeting Aug. 11, the commission voted unanimously to again table the Public Guardian's request for a certificate of appropriateness that would allow the guardian to replace the original leaking red clay tile roof with a cheaper (but historically inaccurate) asphalt alternative.

Commission Chairman Charles Pipal said that arrangements have been made for Michael Jackson, the chief architect of the Illinois Historic Preservation agency, to examine the roof on Aug. 23 (after the deadline for this story), and that he did not want to take action before getting Jackson's report on the roof's condition.

On Aug. 6, representatives of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, the Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy, the Public Guardian's office, the Preservation Commission, the James Mansfield & Sons roofing company of Lyons and an engineering firm, Inspect Inc., that has done work on red clay roofs at the University of Chicago, climbed ladders to examine the roof.

"The condition of the roof is that it leaks," said Ted Smith, a member of the Preservation Commission who was present at the inspection. "There was no maintenance on the roof for many years."

The examination also showed that the gutters were in poor condition and caused some of the water damage to the home.

David Bahlman, president of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, was pleased to find that the house overall is in good shape. "The house is in very good structural shape," said Bahlman. "There's been a lot of deferred maintenance."

Seeking solutions

The nearly century-old building, originally designed by Frank Lloyd Wright as the stable and powerhouse for the rambling Coonley Estate, was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970 and is also designated as a Riverside landmark. Because of the building's local landmark status, the Preservation Commission must approve a certificate of appropriateness before repairs can be made.

"I think we need more information," Pipal said at the Aug. 11 meeting. "I want Mike Jackson to determine if those [clay tile] shingles are salvageable."

In a separate interview the next day, Pipal said that there have been offers of assistance from the state communicated to the commission by state representatives Robert Biggins (R-41st) and Robert Molaro (D-21st) whose districts include Riverside.

"We're looking at the possibility of state funding for at least a portion of this," said Pipal .

However, officials from the Public Guardian's office were visibly disappointed that the commission declined to vote on its application. During the meeting, Kathryn Balgley, the attorney handling the case for the Public Guardian's office, and Cook County Public Guardian Robert Harris repeatedly asked the commission for an up-or-down vote on their application.

At one point during the meeting Commissioner Chris Robling made a motion for a vote to deny the application for a certificate of appropriateness, but his motion died because no other member of the commission seconded it.

If the commission denies the certificate of appropriateness, the Public Guardian can then ask for an economic hardship waiver that would allow it to replace the roof.

"We just need to move along," said Harris. "Whether it's approved or denied it's going to be a long process that we have to go through. We're already toward the end of August. We were hoping to have a resolution as soon as possible, so that we can make sure that we can get the work done by fall. We're just asking for a decision."

But Pipal and other commission members responded that it was still unclear whether the roof needed to be completely replaced or whether it could be repaired. According to Pipal, the examination of the roof just over a week ago revealed significant problems with the gutters that the Public Guardian's proposal does not address.

"This has to be a comprehensive watertight solution before I can approve it," said Commissioner Richard Ray.

Ray also found fault with the Public Guardian's application. "It's a poorly drafted document," Ray said. "I've seen certificates of appropriateness drafted by owners that were vastly superior."

When Commissioner Smith raised the possibility of obtaining a reverse mortgage on the home to pay for a authentic replacement red clay tile roof, estimated to cost around $250,000, Balgley responded that her office is planning to obtain a reverse mortgage, but will not be able to use that money for the roof work.

"We are getting a reverse mortgage," Balgley told the commission. "A reverse mortgage is needed to take care of her person."

Carolyn Howlett requires 24-hour custodial care, according to Balgley.

Officials of preservation groups remain optimistic that they can raise the money needed to fix the roof in a way that would satisfy the Public Guardian's office.

"We have some very significant proposals that fall between the two extremes of prices that were mentioned at the meeting," said Ronald Scherubel, executive director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. "We're talking about a substantial historic repair to the existing tile."

Roofers from the James Mansfield & Sons roofing company of Lyons examined the roof and reported that it could be repaired, according to Audra Dye, program director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy.

On Monday, Aug. 15, Dye said that her group and other preservation groups are in talks with the Public Guardian's office to try get them to agree to repair the existing roof. Dye said that a repair to the existing roof would probably cost no more than $50,000, much of which could be raised by the preservation groups.

However the Public Guardian, while still talking with preservation groups, is leery of paying for repairs that might not last. "We have this limited amount of money that we can pay right now," said Harris. "It's a one-shot deal."

While tempers got a bit heated at times during the hour-long meeting, all involved say they remain committed to working together to find a solution that will allow Carolyn Howlett to remain in her home of 52 years.

"There is no bad guy is this fight," said Pipal.

The next scheduled meeting of the commission is Sept. 8.

"We cannot go into the winter with the roof is this condition," Balgley said.

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