The worker’s cottage at 403 N. Maple Ave. will not become a landmark, allowing developer Bob Allen to proceed with plans to build a four-story condominium building on the property.
The Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission voted 8-1 on Thursday to deny neighbors’ requests to make the house a landmark.
Many commissioners expressed enthusiasm about including workers’ cottages in the area around North Maple Avenue in a historic district, and expressed dismay that the building would be torn down, but said that they could not justify making 403 N. Maple a landmark because there are likely better examples of workers’ cottages.
Neighbors on the 400 block of North Maple presented evidence aimed at convincing commissioners that the building is a significant example of the architectural, cultural, social, or economic heritage of Oak Park, one of the criteria for landmarking. They argued that the building is a symbol of the working-class German immigrants who were an integral part of the village during the 19th century.
Joseph Bigott, a professor at Purdue University Calumet and author of “From Cottage to Bungalow: Houses and the Working Class in Metropolitan Chicago, 1869-1929,” testified as an expert witness about the history of workers’ cottages.
“This building type was the basic building block for Midwestern cities from the 1840s until 1900,” he said. It is important to preserve a variety of houses, he said, and workers’ cottages cannot be replicated today.
Restoration architect John Thorpe said that 403 N. Maple is a “very good example,” is in “quite good condition,” and is “very restorable.” He said he could not, however, guarantee that it is the best example of a worker’s cottage in Oak Park.
Ugis Sprudzs, 411 N. Maple, said that past residents of 403 N. Maple “demonstrated a commitment to civil service, social justice, and political engagement” characteristic of German immigrant communities. According to Sprudzs, Harry Ludemann, who grew up in the house, left a position at a bank to become Township Clerk, a position created to administer a welfare program for the poor.
Royce Yeater, Midwest Director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, wrote a letter to the commission asking them to “change old attitudes and see that… built heritage of all socioeconomic classes is preserved.”
Developer Bob Allen was unconvinced. “It’s not a fine example, or the best example of a worker’s cottage,” he said, “nor is it unaltered enough to give it credibility [as a landmark].”
Allen argued that much of the historical evidence presented by the neighbors was irrelevant.
“I could tell a story about my home, but that doesn’t make it a landmark,” he said. In addition, he said, the history presented included “too much supposition and conjecture.”
Several commissioners said they were impressed by the historical information presented, but all but one opposed making the building a landmark.
“There appear to be better examples within the historic district we have now,” said Commissioner Jack Lesniak.
“I’m not convinced that it does stand alone as a landmark,” said Commission Chair Doug Gilbert. “There are a number of issues with integrity. The siding disappearing is pretty troubling to me.”
Commissioner Frank Lipo disagreed.
“There has already been some broadening of the landmark process,” he said. “Our criteria does not say it has to be the best example. There is a compelling core argument for this building as a landmark.”
Almost all commissioners expressed support for the inclusion of worker’s cottages near 403 N. Maple in a historic district.
“The applicants really have shown that this house is a part of a genre that was important in Oak Park’s early history,” Gilbert said.
“Hopefully, soon, most of the single-story workers’ cottages will be included in an expanded Frank Lloyd Wright historic district,” said Commissioner Marsha Moseley.
By the time any district is created, however, 403, 407, and 409 N. Maple will likely have been demolished to make way for Allen’s 11-unit condominium building.
“It’s going to be a district with one less building, and that’s a sad reality,” Gilbert said.
But the neighbors are not giving up yet. Monika Robinson of 408 N. Maple said that even if she is unable to prevent Allen from building a multifamily structure, she hopes that he will alter his proposal to better match the character of the street.
“We would like to attend the village board meeting on Monday, and to let them know that essentially we’re right back to square one, unfortunately,” she said. “Right now, we’re going to have to rely on the good faith of Bob Allen to act on our behalf in favor of coming to some sort of compromise.”
He and neighbors have met with village mediators to discuss a compromise. Previously, neighbors asked the village to re-zone the block to prevent the development Allen has proposed. Allen says the building fits with zoning on the block and is awaiting demolition and building permits.