As annual showcase houses continue to disappear from the event calendars of Chicago’s suburbs, the Oak Park-River Forest Infant Welfare Society is poised to host its 35th annual Designer Showcase House and Garden at the revamped Elizabeth F. Cheney Mansion. Other than Oak Park-River Forest, Lake Forest is the only other community that continues to produce a showcase house.
As in previous years, an outstanding home and a team of more than 25 interior designers have paired up to raise money for the Infant Welfare Society. But this year, the property selected, the Cheney Mansion, is not privately-owned, but publicly-by the Park District of Oak Park. And rather than selecting exclusively member designers from the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), the Infant Welfare Society decided to move ahead without the partnership, employing not just member, but also non-member, designers.
The partnership between the Oak Park-River Forest Infant Welfare Society and the park district has proven to be a fruitful one, and the final product no less impressive.
Since the Cheney Mansion serves many functions for the park district-playing host to cooking and gardening classes, as well as weddings and banquets-the design criteria for the showcase house were far more extensive than in previous years.
Gary Balling, park district executive director, said conceptual work began on the project about a year and a half ago. At that time, the Infant Welfare Society made its proposal to host the showcase house at the Cheney Mansion. Balling then met with preservation architect Lesley Gilmore, who had done a lot of work for the parks in the past. Together, they compiled a list of design requirements, which clarified for the artists, according to Balling, “This is what can change, this is what cannot change; here are things you can paint, here are things you cannot paint.”
Perhaps most important of these requirements was the one concerning design cohesion. One clause in the general design guidelines states, “Public spaces on each floor shall have a cohesive design statement.”
In past years, some showcase houses have turned into a disparate mix of rooms, a result of having many designers, with many differing visions, none of whom seemed to be on the same page. The design review team, representing interests from both the parks and the Infant Welfare Society, went to great lengths to prevent the same thing from happening this year on taxpayer-funded property.
“It’s a historic, publicly-owned property, and has local landmark status,” said Balling, “so [the designers] had to present different presentation boards on how things were going to be decorated.” The boards included design sketches, sample materials, paints and lighting schemes.
Design Chair Jane Levy said the time and expense donated by the designers just to create these boards were no small sacrifice, never mind all the time spent on decorating the rooms themselves.
“You walk the fine line between telling the designers what to do, and granting them complete creative license. I basically had to say, ‘Here’s a general palette of what I’m expecting,'” explained Levy. She wanted to make it very clear that
“houses that are disjointed aren’t comfortable.”
Of her relationship with the park district, she said, “I think they were a little hesitant about turning the home over to the Welfare Society and the artists at first, but I think they like what happened with it.” When the design boards were presented to the park district, “that was the first time they started having a better comfort level.”
And now that the house is ready for the next three fundraising weeks, Balling agreed.
“This was really a win-win project. A wonderful way to get the interior of Cheney Mansion updated for the park district, as well as a wonderful benefit for the Infant Welfare Society.”