The monumental task of cataloging River Forest's architectural diversity has concluded.
After 18 months of painstaking research and work, the River Forest Historic Preservation Commission has classified 304 homes that are considered historically and architecturally significant.
The listing, approved by River Forest trustees last month, has been placed on the village website and soon will be accompanied by a database containing descriptions of each home, photos and why the home has been included.
In the coming weeks, residents will be able to access the database, undertaken with the assistance of the Lakota Group, a Chicago-based firm noted for its historic preservation work, and the Oak Park and River Forest Historical Society.
"It will be a living, breathing educational tool that can be of great use to the community," said Dave Franek, the chair of the commission.
The project is a milestone in the work of the commission, which is less than a decade in existence and is a baseline of the village's housing stock, Franek said.
"The survey helps define the character and the styles that are found in River Forest," said Laurel McMahon, a commission member who was integral in making the effort a reality. "It is what makes River Forest unique."
Village officials and preservationists agree that preservation adds to the quality of life and increases property values. But those two elements might not enter the direction that historic preservation will take locally.
Any action probably will be cautious, and River Forest will not take the same direction as Oak Park, which long has had preservation ordinances with "teeth" and require homeowners to follow specific guidelines on how to preserve their homes, village officials said.
"We should be mindful of the historic nature of homes. It's going to need to be a conversation with those who want to save historic homes at all costs and those who want to sell those homes. There's a medium; we need to figure that out," Village President Catherine Adduci said recently during an extensive issue on community issues, including preservation.
Historic significance is ascertained based on criteria set by the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the National Register of Historic Places. To be considered eligible, a home must be at least 50 years old and still look much the way it did in the past.
In addition, the home needs to be associated with events, activities or developments important in the past, including architectural history, landscape history or engineering achievements, according to the National Register's website.
Three homes in River Forest are on the National Register: the William E. Drummond House, 559 Edgewood Pl.; the William Hatch House, 309 Keystone Ave.; the William H. Winslow House and Stable, 515 Auvergne Place. In addition, an area roughly bounded by Harlem Avenue on the east, Chicago Avenue on the north, Lake Street on the south and the Des Plaines River on the west is part of that district. That district was expanded north of Chicago and south of Lake Street in 1977.
Other historically significant homes may be added as they meet guidelines.
But as of now, not even homes individually on the National Register or in the historic district are singled out for different treatment as residents can tear down a historically and architecturally significant home. All homes in River Forest are zoned equally.
In addition, if the owner of a historically significant home wants to change 20 percent or more of the exterior façade that faces the street, the commission can only review and comment, Franek said.
"The commission's role is limited to comment," Franek said. "The homeowner can choose to discuss it. The commission could weigh in with suggestions and provide suggestions that might consist of a more sensitive nature."
The village though can – but is unlikely – to adopt other measures that would help keep the vitality of historic homes. Demolition ordinances could be changed allowing for a cooling-off period before a demolition period is approved.
Another unlikely effort is for River Forest to seek designation as a "Certified Local Government." The program, set up by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, would mean the local landmarking of buildings, putting teeth into building codes and zoning.
The efforts that will be taken will focus on community education, which Franek and McMahon believe will be invaluable. Additional recognition for ranch homes west and north side of the village and homes by the Buurma Brothers could be in the offing.
"I hope we can have some public meetings about the list and show people this resource and explain why it's such a desirable thing," she said. "We want to protect those things that give our village the character and the ambiance that draws people here without preventing people from altering their homes to fit their life styles. We don't want to rush into things, but the 'train is on the tracks.' People I believe will be more receptive to it and make changes sensitive to that."
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