Oak Park has more architects per capita than any other town in America. Just ask any member of the Oak Park Architectural League (OPAL).

“Maybe it’s the Frank Lloyd Wright connection, maybe it’s just that Oak Park is an interesting town architecturally, maybe it’s the location that it is close to O’Hare and downtown-it’s probably all of the above,” says OPAL President Frank Heitzman, who founded the organization in the 1980s as an “informal think-tank where area architects, men and women, could get together and talk about their projects.” Their old meeting spot was The Weinkeller on Roosevelt Road (now long since gone) and then Salvador’s on Ridgeland Avenue (also defunct).

“We really get together to complain about how hard it is to get a building permit in Oak Park,” Heitzman says. “Really, people need to know how difficult it is to build here.” The group meets sporadically in area establishments but Heitzman readily admits “we need a new clubhouse.”

But OPAL does have exhibit space. Samples of members’ work is currently on display at Oak Park Village Hall.

“There are blueprints, works of builders, renovations and restorations, a painting, a model, and even a woodcarving that is extraordinary-a copy of a piece that was put in someone’s home by an architect,” says Camille Wilson White, president of the Oak Park Area Arts Council (OPAAC), which hosts village hall’s gallery exhibits. This is OPAL’s second.

“I hope people see the incredible talent we have here in Oak Park,” says Heitzman. Members contributed 23 representations, ranging from the expected to the unexpected. John Bolchert, for instance, submitted a set of his whiteprints. “Whiteprints actually pre-date blueprints,” notes Bolchert. “They don’t make them anymore.” Whiteprints are copies of hand-drawn plans-today architects make computer-generated plans. “I was slow to convert to computers, so these are probably from about 1987,” he says. “They really represent a lost art.”

Bolchert says he used to look at old architectural drawings with awe, but now looks at his old white drawings with new appreciation. “You have to appreciate the talent it took to do these,” he says. “You had to plan out the entire structure before you began one line on the page-you couldn’t just move things around like you do now with computers.”

An architect for more than 30 years, Bolchert observes that “architects solve people’s problems. It doesn’t make any difference if it is creating a kitchen or a laboratory.” Bolchert is currently creating a Wishbone restaurant next to FitzGerald’s on the Berwyn side of Roosevelt Road after remodeling FitzGerald’s itself. He has been involved with OPAL, he says, since Heitzman created the group. “We would meet in bars frequently and do a lot of talking,” he says. “It’s a very loose-knit group of people.”

Bolchert now works together with his son, who is also an architect. “Architecture is a weird profession,” he says. “You have to know a little bit of everything.” Bolchert says the many mandatory municipal codes have hampered architecture. “You have specifications on doors, counters and such at the same height,” he says, exasperated. “The artistry has suffered.” His own style incorporates “a lot of angles,” which creates even more complexity. His choose to display the whiteprints in order to convey just how much information architects need to communicate to contractors.

“Whiteprints are like the instructions to a product,” he says. “You can’t build it properly without a good plan.”

Railroad roundhouses

Darrel Babuk, a senior associate at an architectural firm specializing in transportation planning, is fond of the railroad. “My father was born in a train station, and I lived in one for 10 years as a child,” he says. Babuk’s father worked for the Canadian Pacific railway and living in the train station was one of the perks of the job. Babuk chose to exhibit a historical overview of railroad roundhouses and coaling towers in the OPAL display. “Roundhouses were where the steam engines were serviced,” he explains. “The structure had to be round to accommodate a turntable for the engine and it took up a small amount of land.”

Babuk is currently involved in turning an old structure into a historical landmark in Canada. “My wife accused me of losing my Canadian accent, so I started watching Canadian weblogs,” he says. “I was watching a music video by the Canadian group “Nickelback” and they featured a roundhouse in Hanna, Alberta.” A friend had told him it was in Calgary and that correction led to Babuk’s involvement in the town’s listing it on the historical registry. Babuk is also sponsoring a scholar who is part of the L’Ecole Des Beaux Arts in Paris.

“America really didn’t have an architecture school, so the pioneers, like Louis Sullivan, studied architecture in Paris,” he explains. “The school carries on an exchange program where one year an American is sent to Paris and another year a French student to America.” This year the visiting French architect specialized in railroad stations and Babuk was called upon to meet with the young man and give some historical background. “By the end of the talk, I had exhausted all my French, and he had exhausted what little English he knew,” Babuk recalls, noting that there are roundhouses we well as coaling towers (where engines were refueled with coal) in the area, most notably at Pulaski and Kinzie and also in Bellwood.

Alley architect

Anthony Ronning contributed an ornate fireplace panel of his own design for the exhibit. “I like to be able to get into that high level of detail,” he says, “so I show clients my portfolio and one time out of 20 they agree.” Ronning has considerable experience in studying sculpture, “up to past graduate school,” he says, “both figurative and abstract.” He’s been an architect since 1992 and has been practicing on his own for the past 10 years. “I do mostly residential stuff in Oak Park,” he says. “Unfortunately remodeling in Oak Park means construction on the back [of the structure], so I tell people you have to drive in the alley to see my work.”

Of the many condominium buildings currently rising in Oak Park, Ronning says, “It is almost a detriment to design something in a historical environment,” he says. “Maybe if Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t have his studio here, we would actually see some architecture design reflecting 2006.”

Jim Lencioni of the Aria Group, meanwhile, is showing two current projects-one a resort in Belize and the other a hotel in Dyer, Ind.

“We have done work in 33 states and internationally,” says Lencioni. “We’ve designed Eagle Ridge in Galena, most of the Lettuce Entertain You restaurants, P.F. Chang, Blue Chip Casino in Michigan City, and a lot of work for Brookfield Zoo.” Lencioni describes OPAL as “a very loose group of architects in Oak Park who stay in touch.”

Other submissions include photos of luxury bath remodeling, giclee prints, wood models and dramatic “before and after photos” of familiar Oak Park spots such as the transformation of The Grain Depot to what is now The Pasta Shoppe.

The Oak Park Architectural League exhibit is on display until Oct. 31 during business hours at Oak Park Village Hall, 123 Madison Ave. in Oak Park. Call village hall at 383-6400 for more information or Oak Park Area Arts Council at 358-5690.

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