A local preservationist has charged that the extensive renovation of the former River Forest Woman’s Club at 526 Ashland Avenue, is being mismanaged and cutting corners. On his Re-Building.com website, under the headline “Renovation on the cheap,” River Forest resident Marty Hackl asks in a subhead, “Is the restoration of the River Forest Women’s Club being bungled?”

The new owners, Paul and Ellen Coffey, who are turning it into a private home, say Hackl’s ongoing criticism is getting old”older than their 1913 William Drummond landmark. David Bahlman, president of Landmarks Illinois, said flatly on Friday that Hackl’s charges were unfounded and unjustified.

“The project is being reviewed by our Fund and Easement Committee, so there’s no lack of oversight whatsoever,” Bahlman said Friday.

Hackl contends that a major structural flaw in a support beam is going unaddressed, inferior pine replacement siding is being used rather than more durable cypress, and Department of the Interior standards for historic rehabs are being ignored. In addition, Hackl suggests the organization holding the building’s preservation easement, Landmarks Illinois, (previously the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois) is not providing adequate oversight of the renovation process.

Coffey acknowledged Friday that there is, in fact, a “6-inch deflection on the north end [of the building],” which he had checked by an engineer. The beam was fortified from the inside, he said.

“We could have cranked the building up, but it would have compromised the symmetrical design of the building,” said Coffey. Hackl said Monday he doesn’t buy that explanation.

“When you do any kind of rehabilitation, you take care of the structural issues first,” he said.

“I can go through this categorically and show that [Hackl’s] statements are unfounded and based on half-truths,” Coffey said. An analysis of the wood used to side the original Women’s Club conducted several months ago, he said, showed that the it was, in fact, pine.

“The historic preservation architects we hired encouraged us to have samples of the wood sent to Quirk Consulting in Madison, Wis.,” he added. “It came back as Eastern White Pine.”

Hackl, though, suggests that the board sent in for testing “may have been a 40- or 50-year-old replacement board.”

An exasperated Coffey said Friday that while Prairie School architects liked to use either Cypress or cedar siding, Drummond likely utilized pine to keep down costs for the Women’s Club.

In his online article, Hackl also criticized the reopening of the “port cochere” structure over the entry door on the south side of the building. Saying the structure was enclosed “early in the building’s history, probably the work of the original architect himself,” Hackl argues the enclosure “should probably have been left as part of the historical fabric and integrity of the building.”

Coffey said he decided, after consultation with experts, to restore the port cochere to its original condition.

“It’s common knowledge among historical preservationists that you choose a time and then preserve to that time,” said Coffey. “We choose when the building was built [1913].”

Hackl was among a small group of people who late last summer attempted to see the Women’s Club sold to another not-for-profit group which would keep the building open for public use. However, they could not locate a willing party that also possessed the financial means to both purchase the building and rehab it to standards required of a public access structure.

A 2001 estimate for the River Forest Park District, which had considered assuming title of the building, placed that cost at a minimum of $500,000, and as much as $1,000,000. Based on that expense, the park district declined to assume ownership.

An annoyed Bahlman said that the Coffeys should be commended, not criticized, for their efforts in relation to the Women’s Club, and that the quality of the rehab “is not an issue.”

“Anybody who’s taken a building that’s in that condition, and is rehabbing it should not be attacked the way that Mr. Hackl is attacking him,” said Bahlman. “He’s doing everything right. We have experts checking all of the studies, all of the [work being done].”

The Coffey’s lawyer, Richard Freidman, also scoffed at Hackl’s contention that the Coffeys were taking shortcuts. Freidman, who also serves as general counsel to Landmarks Illinois, stated that he has been retained by the Coffeys as their legal counsel, and so will not speak for Landmarks Illinois on anything relating to the Coffeys’ new home.]

“It’s unusual to have a client that’s so careful,” he said of Coffey. “He wants to do an excellent and historically accurate renovation.”

A review last week of the plans submitted to the village by architect Robert Franzen show that the Coffeys are spending at least $177,000 for an extensive rehab of the property. Those plans detail the handling of the demolition and reinstallation of many original features, and call for the original siding to be removed and stored for used as replacement wood wherever possible.

The first “general note” at the top of the architectural drawings submitted to the village state that the work on the structure is legally restricted, reading, “The River Forest Women’s Club is protected under a preservation easement held by the LPCI,” the notice reads in large capital letters. “All work performed in accordance with easement and the Secretary of the Interior’s Guidelines for the treatment of historic properties.”

Hackl said Monday that he’s merely raising questions about the renovation, and suggested that the text of the general notes are only words.

“Saying you’re doing it and doing it are two different things. Standards are open to interpretation,” he said.

Alleged trespassing

Hackl’s web posting came several months after he received a letter from Freidman, warning him not to enter onto the Coffeys’ property. Hackl posted that letter with his web article. Dated March 23, the letter states that Freidman was informed by the Coffeys that Hackl was on their property “and entered the residence on the property within the past few weeks.” It goes on to tell Hackl he has no permission to enter the residence or step on the property.

“If you violate this directive further, the Coffeys intend to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law,” Freidman writes.

Hackl, on his website, denied entering the property and reiterated that Monday.

“The most I’ve seen of the building was going down Lake Street and seeing the dumpster,” he said.

As far as any repercussions from an alleged trespass, Freidman said that for their part, the Coffeys don’t intend to pursue the matter unless Hackl makes an appearance on their property.

Hackl said he accepts that he’s viewed as a rabble-rouser, but denies he’s harassed or attacked anyone.

“I didn’t name the owners. I’ve talked about the building,” he said of his ongoing criticisms. Asked what he plans to do next, Hackl said, “Nothing. I’m in no position to do anything.”

As he prepares to move from River Forest to a far west suburb next month, Hackl seems resigned, if not accepting of developments, saying, “If [the owners] are satisfied and Landmarks Illinois is satisfied and the community is satisfied, there it is.”

Bahlman said he and the Coffeys would just like to see the renovation”of what they note is now a private home”proceed without any further unwanted controversy.

“I think any reasonable person would be satisfied with what’s being done there,” Bahlman said.

Join the discussion on social media!