If you live in central Oak Park and see people with cameras photographing your home, don’t worry. And if someone with a clipboard is standing in front of your property staring and taking notes, there’s still no need to be alarmed.

These people are not from the Department of Homeland Security, nor are they spies, terrorists, investigators, Realtors, tourists or even journalists. They’re just regular Oak Parkers who are helping the village prepare an application to nominate the Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie School of Architecture Historic District as a National Historic Landmark District.

The district has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973 and has been a local historic district since 1972, but designation as a National Historic Landmark District would reflect its national, as opposed to merely local, importance.

“A National Historic Landmark District has to have national significance,” explains Doug Kaarre, an urban planner for the Village of Oak Park and the staff liaison to the Historic Preservation Commission, which is spearheading the application. “They have to be significant to the nation as a whole in some way. And we feel the Frank Lloyd Wright style is. Not just Frank Lloyd Wright, but the development of the Prairie School of architects. Oak Park is the birthplace of that style that spread across the country. It’s considered the only true American style of architecture.”

There are currently 11 National Historic Districts in Illinois, including Columbus Park and Pullman in Chicago, Fort Sheridan, and the Riverside Historic District in Riverside.

The National Park Service will make the ultimate decision on whether to classify the area as a National Historical Landmark District. While the designation is prestigious and helpful in attracting tourists, it places no additional restrictions on what property owners can do with their properties. It is the local landmark status that regulates the changes that homeowners can make on their homes.

Taking a survey

In order to achieve a National Historic District designation, the village will have to update the application it first submitted in 1973. Much more detailed information is required on an application today than what was submitted more than 30 years ago.

So the Historic Preservation Commission has recruited members of the Oak Park Photography Club to take photos of every building in the district, and others, for an architectural survey. The district is bounded by Division Street on the north, Lake Street on the south, Ridgeland Avenue on the east and Marion Street and Woodbine Avenue on the west.

There are about 1,500 buildings in all; 23 of the 25 Wright-designed buildings in Oak Park lie within this area. Only Unity Temple, on the south side of Lake Street, and a private home at 404 Home Ave. are located outside the district.

Of course, not all the homes in the proposed landmark district are Prairie style. But all the homes are important and must be catalogued in the application, no matter how modern they may be.

“It doesn’t have to be Frank Lloyd Wright or Prairie style,” explained Kaarre. “The Victorians play a part because they were here when Wright was here. That’s what he was reacting to.”

Homes in the district are of a variety of styles, according to Kaarre. They include farm cottages from the mid to late-19th century, and also a variety of homes from the Victorian era, including Queen Anne, Italianate and Gothic styles. Wright, who despised the ornate Victorian style, came next. The Prairie School was popular from the 1890s until the end of World War I. After the war, Colonial Revival became the fad and the Prairie style lost favor.

Not every home in the proposed district is historic or architecturally significant. Buildings in a National Historic Landmark District are classified as either contributing (those that contribute to the historic character of the district) or non-contributing (those that do not contribute to the historic character of the district).

So it’s important that the application contain detailed information on every home in the district. That’s where the volunteers come in. Some will carefully photograph every building in the district and others will fill out a detailed architectural field survey form, noting the history and significant architectural and historical features of each one. The project is expected to take about two years and the village hopes to submit its application in 2007.

About 40 people have volunteered so far”about evenly divided between photographers who will take the photos and surveyors who will fill out the forms detailing the features of each building.

Photography 101

Jim Krysan, a member of the Oak Park Photography Club, is happy to help out and has helped recruit 18 other members to take pictures. He downplays his effort to encourage club members to volunteer.

“I’m the worst salesman in the world,” said Krysan. “From the moment it came up a number of people expressed interest in taking part.”

It’s an assignment that particularly appeals to Krysan.

“I would sooner take pictures of buildings than people,” he admitted. “I’ve been photographing buildings for over 35 years.”

It’s a particularly challenging assignment for a photographer, according to Krysan. The photographer must be careful and detail-oriented. Get too close to a house you’re photographing and the architectural details of the entire structure will be lost.

“They like to see the chimney,” Krysan explained. “For the most part you get a more useful picture if you take it from across the street. Getting these pictures requires all sorts of compromises.”

It’s the kind of exacting work that offers excellent training for a photographer.

“It’s a good learning experience,” said Krysan. “Often times photographers have a free spirit. This particular assignment forces the photographer to look at things a little differently.”

Light is also a factor. It can’t be too bright, so winter is often the best time to take these photos.

“The survey is about architectural details of the house, which often are obscured by foliage, so most houses photograph better in the winter,” said Krysan. “We tend to think of a bright, sunny day as the photographer’s best friend but it quickly turns against us if the house has a bright siding and a dark, shady porch.”

Filtered sunlight is best, he notes.

Those interested in helping out on the project should call Kaarre at 358-5417. He’d also love to hear from those residents in the historic district who have done research on their own homes.

Oak Park has locally-designated landmarks, buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and three local historic districts. The National Register is the United States’ official list of cultural resources worthy of preservation because of their significance to American history. It’s administered by the National Park Service, but offers no protection against demolition or alteration. National Historic Landmark Districts also are listed on the National Register and are administered by the National Park Service.

Oak Park’s local register was created under the 1994 historic preservation ordinance to safeguard and encourage the rehabilitation of structures significant to the history of Oak Park. It protects landmarked property from demolition and prevents destructive, damaging or arbitrary exterior changes. The Historic Preservation Commission reviews proposals for work to landmarked buildings.

Not all buildings in Oak Park’s three historic districts are considered landmarks. But owners of property within the districts are subject to many of the same restrictions as those with landmark status.

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