A new museum, 200 years in the telling

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

It's a storytelling place, says Frank Lipo, during a 2½-hour tour of the lovely new Oak Park River Forest Museum last Saturday. The restored-yet-refashioned former firehouse at Lombard and Lake is well worth a visit. Even the floor is both old and new. They flipped the floorboards, sanded and finished them, and it looks brand new — but also old. The inspiration came from one of their local contractors who comes from Poland. That's what they do with older buildings back home, he said. Good idea … and a good story.

Lipo has hundreds of them. He's a fast talker but not a word is wasted. He could have gone on for another 2½ hours and I would have gladly listened. There are so many stories to tell, all interesting.

Jan Dressel, who has been part of the Historical Society story for decades, also has a tale to tell — about Elsie Jacobsen's coffeepot. The late, great Elsie, chair of the village's Beautification Committee (there's a story), lived by the motto, "Live well, do good work, and inspire others." She inspired Jan to join the society's board early on and at the first meeting she attended, the board had a lengthy discussion on whether buying a Mr. Coffee machine was a good use for their limited funds.

"This group needs to expand its vision," Dressel thought. Almost 50 years later, after they have raised almost a million dollars from private sources (there's a story), she waves her arm encompassing the up-to-date facility that will celebrate its grand opening this Saturday and says, "This is some coffeepot."

Lipo has a tale to tell about the beautifully carved, heavy oak table in the center of the second floor, which once served as the social hall for G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic) meetings (another story). Next to the table is an intricately carved wooden arm chair. The origins of each, for a time, seemed obscure and unrelated.

Virginia (Ginie) Cassin, the first female village clerk, salvaged it from the old village hall (Euclid and Lake) and had it transported to the new village hall in the mid-'70s, where it was used as decoration until recently, when the village donated it to the new History Museum. The society received the chair separately as a donation, but Frank didn't know its origin until he came across an old photo portrait of early Oak Park settler James Scoville at his Scoville Institute, which served as the village public library for the better part of a century, until it was torn down in 1962 (definitely a story). 

In the photo, Scoville is standing between this very same oak table and chair. The table's journey from Institute to Old Village Hall to New Village Hall to former Cicero Township firehouse building is a story encapsulating Oak Park's commitment to historical continuity. 

The Historical Society's journey to this Saturday's grand opening, meanwhile, reflects that same dedication to continuity. In 1968, Elsie Jacobsen and her committee received a letter from the state of Illinois, as did most other municipalities, asking them to join the statewide celebration of Illinois' sesquicentennial and suggesting they form a local history organization. 

Ever game, Elsie, who had recently come into possession of a treasure trove of photographic negatives left behind by turn-of-the century camera buff Philander Barclay (a big story), established the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest (despite the coffeepot shortfall). 

In 1970, the society was granted a room in the recently reopened Pleasant Home and created a small museum that allowed the Park District of Oak Park, which owned the home (deeded by the family of Herbert Mills after he died in 1930 — another story) to levy a museum tax, which helped fund the home's ongoing restoration.

Over the next two decades, they kept expanding into other rooms upstairs until 1992, when they negotiated a deal to take over the second and third floors entirely. They also hired Frank Lipo as their first full-time executive director, who, although he didn't know it at the time, would make this his life's work (another story).

But the deal came with a proviso: The society needed to begin searching for a permanent home (though the park district set no firm deadline). That journey culminated this year after exploring numerous promising options: the Drechsler building on Lake Street, the former Curtis Casket Co. (later a dance studio) next to Pieritz Bros. on South Boulevard near Ridgeland, one of the Wright Bootleg houses on Chicago Avenue, a former garage on the first block of Chicago Avenue near Austin Boulevard, the former River Forest Women's Club, the Marshall Field building, and the former pool area in the basement of the 19th Century Club. Because the economic downturn in 2007-2008 dampened fundraising prospects, they realized they couldn't generate enough donations to both purchase a building and renovate it. So they set their sights on village-owned buildings and hoped for a deal.

Their first walk-through at the former Cicero firehouse, with Village Manager Carl Swenson and Village President Barbara Furlong, took place in 2001. In 2007, after construction of the new Public Works building, Frank called Village Manager Tom Barwin (who is currently battling the effects of Hurricane Irma as city manager of Sarasota) and asked if the old firehouse might be available. Good timing. Barwin was receptive to a low-cost lease but said the society would have to raise all the funds for restoration. 

The society pursued landmark status to protect the structure from demolition, then started fundraising in earnest. The formal deal with the village, finalized in 2009, was drafted by current Village Trustee Simone Boutet, an assistant village attorney at the time. It called for a 30-year lease, with a 20-year option to renew, at the grand sum of $1 a year. The village also granted a four-year window to raise the funds with a four-year extension, both of which were needed.

They landed two state grants (2012 and '14), totaling $200,000, which, you won't be surprised to hear, the state still hasn't appropriated. But getting those grants encouraged private donors to invest. The turning point came, Lipo said, when Jeanette Fields contributed $100,000 because she had used the society's research room at Pleasant Home (for the architecture columns she wrote for Wednesday Journal) and wanted them to upgrade that part of the operation. 

 Lipo likes the location of the new museum. Since they started developing plans to renovate the building, he noted, Pete's Fresh Market, the School of Rock, the rehabbed Ridgeland Common complex, and the Gymnastics Center have all opened along Lake Street between Ridgeland and Austin. He sees the new museum as part of the upswing. In fact, the owners of the new brewpub proposed for Austin and Lake did their research at the Historical Society. Lake Street itself is integral to Oak Park history — an old Indian trail that eventually became the site of the first railroad west from Chicago, contributing to Oak Park's population boom (stories upon stories). And the firehouse is the oldest village-owned building in continuous use since Oak Park incorporated following its secession from Cicero Township in 1902.

Society members, private donors, and local architects and contractors, many of whom donated their services, have invested a lot in this effort. Dressel calls it "my fifth grandchild." Lipo describes it as "a 21st-century museum in a 19th century firehouse."

They're proud of never taking out a line of credit and carrying no debt.

"The grand opening is on Philander Barclay's birthday," Lipo noted, "so that's good karma."

At long last they have their storytelling place. It is also a time machine, a back-to-the-future Delorean, a portal to our past with links to our future (past, after all, being prologue). Visitors to the new museum for its grand opening this Saturday (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) will find the original Georgia pine bead-board walls and ceilings, LED lighting in old-fashioned replica fixtures, A/C provided by three geothermal wells, and, of course, the Tarzan exhibit.

You don't know about Oak Park's connection to Tarzan? Now there's a story.

"Good things take a long time," said Lipo, looking around. "This was worth waiting for."

Spoken like a true historian.

Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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