Fancy this: Who knows better how to love and live life than the Italians? And who more than Oak Parkers are devoted to the philosophy of the richness of cultural diversity? So why don’t we, Oak Parkers in need of a vision for downtown Oak Park, borrow from Italian culture the rich and longstanding tradition of turning out by the thousands for a lovely leisurely stroll in the evening through the streets and piazzas of the city’s principal commercial districts and make this phenomenon our own.

The tradition of dressing, walking, courting and socializing in the piazza is known as “passeggiata” or “the walk.” It happens around dusk each evening. Every tourist to Italy has likely seen this custom in some Italian town. Locals come out in the pre-dusk evening, stroll and chat and congregate. In Siena, it happens in the Piazza del Campo; in Rome, the Piazza Navona, around the Pantheon, or near Trevi Fountain; in Venice, St. Mark’s Square; and in Florence, Piazza de San Giovanni or Piazza della Signoria, among many other sites. Before or after dinner, it is a chance to be sociable, and stretch your legs.

Pedestrians walk through the streets of the old town, “centro storico,” the historic center, a gentle stroll. Italians give some thought and care about their dress for this ritual. Tourists are easy to spot. People walk, talk, enjoy each other’s company, see and are seen. Described by one anthropological observer as a “place of promenades, encounters, intrigues, diplomacy, trade and negotiations,” he also called it a “vast setting where … rituals, codes and relations become visible and acted out. Romances are on display as well as new shoes.”

In Oak Park, what would we pass in our “centro storico”? We have a famous downtown, a rich heritage in our buildings. Anyone can see this online in a 2005 inventory of the historic structures in downtown Oak Park by the Historic Preservation Commission on the village’s website. We have at least three buildings by E.E. Roberts (1112 Lake, 117-119 N. Marion, 123-125 Marion) and think of the wonderfully restored Scoville Square Building at Lake and Oak Park where Winberie’s is located. It was one of the only times E.E. Roberts applied the Prairie style of architecture to a commercial building. We have at least four buildings by Meyer & Cook who did Ascension Church. We have at least two buildings (1023 Lake and 1033-49 Lake by Prairie-School architects Tallmadge and Watson. We have one building by White and Weber. Charles White designed the Oak Park Post Office and Cheney Mansion. We have at least five buildings either built or altered by Holabird and Root. John Root was the partner of Daniel Burnham who did the plan for Chicago after the Chicago Fire. We have at least two stretches of properties masterminded by George Hemingway, the real estate branch of the Hemingway family. This includes the long building housing Marion Street Grille on Marion, north of Lake.

The old Marshall Field’s Building was designed by the same architects who gave Chicago the landmark Wrigley Building. There is the old Bond’s Building (Cosi) and the old Fair Store Building (housing Barbara’s Bookstore), the first Chicago department store to open an Oak Park branch. You are walking around a famous downtown, Oak Park!

Represented in the architecture downtown are styles ranging from Modernist to Classical Revival to Prairie to French New Orleans Provincial Style to Art Deco to Tudor Revival to the Marshall Field building, described as French Renaissance Revival with Art Deco influence! This kind of diversity of architectural styles in close proximity to one another couldn’t be authentically replicated today.

Unless we want a homogenized downtown-as we see being developed in shopping corners all over Chicago to replace our unique downtown, there is good reason to keep and improve what we have. The ambiance of The Avenue shopping area of Oak Park Avenue at Lake Street is a good example of historic buildings being maintained and featured. The area has personality and character. It is adjacent to the park. In downtown Oak Park, there is even more to be had in the way of historic architecture with personality. Serve up some street furniture and some covered or sheltered areas with an espresso or a glass of wine and what could be better?

Consultants from out of town recently said we should tear down 27 structures in downtown Oak Park. Given the rich history of our architectural heritage in DTOP, this would truly be a travesty. But the one good thing suggested by the consultants might possibly be to tear down the old Lytton’s Building at the NW corner of Lake and Forest and make it a plaza and entrance into Austin Gardens.

Sad and wasteful as it seems to tear down a perfectly good structure, if the space were opened up and made one with Austin Gardens, we would have our passeggiata, complete with a piazza. With the addition of some street furniture, this would be an inviting setting where people could congregate, visit and rest while shopping. Picture an outdoor cafe under the canopy of the building at 1010 Lake, downtown Oak Park’s first Modernist high-rise by Hausner and Macsai, built in 1968. Even if the seven-story height of that building offended some people when it was originally proposed, John Macsai, the proposed architect for the failed Stankus project at Forest and Lake, is an architect whose work is worth preserving. The idea that 1010 Lake has an open undercover space which could work as an outdoor cafe is also a great streetscape feature which makes diners feel safer from vehicular traffic because it is recessed from the street. The open space on the ground level at 1010 Lake provides relief from the feeling solid stretches of lot line-to-lot line buildings can give pedestrians as they walk down the street.

The Lake Theatre was designed by Thomas Lamb, one of the foremost theater and cinema architects of the late 19th Century, early 20th Century, who designed some 152 theaters around the country, most of which have been closed and/or demolished with the exception of the Ziegfield Theater in New York City and Madison Square Garden. The builder of the Lake Theater was Avery Brundage (of Olympic fame). He also did the Oak Leaves Building. If you google Avery Brundage and also look at the oral history at the Library of the Art Institute of Chicago online concerning John Macsai and read about their personal lives, the irony of Brundage’s building being next to that of John Macsai’s is striking and important.

How do we determine what is best for our downtown’s future? One thing is to take people whose foremost consideration is their personal profit out of the driver’s seat in the planning and decision-making. Shops of Downtown Oak Park/Gap/Pier One, (Lake and Harlem) etc., built in 1997 were already under discussion for demolition last year. They are described architecturally as having “No Merit.” This kind of building is a waste of material resources, but also our village administration’s time and effort shepherding that project along-and with a subsidy at that.

We need projects worthy of everyone’s time and effort, worthy of the setting where they will make their home. It was shortsighted to allow them in 1997 and any architect or builder with a history of building structures of “No Merit” should not be allowed a second opportunity to build in Oak Park. Our village leaders should also look at the real preservation work architects and builders have done and how they impacted neighborhoods around the city despite what their PR might say. It is one thing to build where there is no building. It is another thing entirely to destroy what has value only to replace it with inferior projects.

There is no mention here of Westgate, the reproduction of Market Square in Lake Forest; no mention of the 19th Century Club, a story unto itself. No mention of the other distinguished architects whose work is represented in downtown Oak Park. We have a treasure here in our downtown and no one is talking about it. It is time for citizens to do their own inventory and time to take the tour. We have a very famous downtown. It shouldn’t be the best kept secret in Oak Park any longer.

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