De-fence: A worker erects a temporary fence on Thursday around Pleasant Home as the old iron fence is taken down for restoration.J. GEIL/Staff Photographer

More than 100 years ago, a fence was built around the property and grounds now known as Pleasant Home and Mills Park. Original owner John Farson commissioned architect George Washington Maher, who design the mansion, to build a very long and very tall fence of rolled steel and stone. The price tag was $4,000.

This month, the Park District of Oak Park began a project to restore the fence that surrounds what is now a national historic landmark, to its original glory. After more than a century of wear and tear, the steel has rusted, the paint has chipped, and the stone has shifted. This time, the price tag will be closer to $400,000.

But the park district and the Pleasant Home Foundation said the restoration is worth every penny. “The fence was in dire condition,” said Laura Thompson, executive director of the Pleasant Home Foundation. But like the home, the fence is a work of fine craftsmanship, and serves as a throwback to the era of its creation whereas other features of the original property have been lost or destroyed over the years — the carriage house, greenhouse and fountain, for instance. In order to preserve the historic quality of the property, therefore, it’s important to maintain the fence.

“What’s been amazing, when we’ve taken it apart, is how well it’s been constructed,” said Thompson. “We’re looking at this and thinking, oh my gosh, 100 years this has stood. It’s not falling down, it’s not wobbling. It’s really amazing how well it was put together.”

Despite the fence’s durability, a century exposed to the elements has left the structure in need of repair. “It’s still a beautiful fence, but it clearly needs a lot of attention,” said Doug Gilbert, a member of the Pleasant Home Foundation Restoration Committee, which oversees various projects on the property.

The fence still retains its original design, complete with a rectangular motif visible throughout Pleasant Home. Thompson said the signature shape is commonly interpreted as a medallion, and can be spotted in different forms all over the property.

Contractors hired to do the fence work will not only maintain that design but also the original craftsmanship that has kept the structure so sturdy over the years. “We’re using all the same processes to put it back together” that were used 100 years ago, Thompson said.

The fence restoration project was originally presented as part of the park district’s master plan to revamp Oak Park’s parks. Decisions about what to restore, repair or build anew were made based on feedback from the community.

“A lot of people thought the park was not accessible,” said Thompson of the findings of that community outreach. Because the surrounding areas are so densely populated with residential homes and apartment buildings that have little green space between them, Mills Park has come to serve as a sort of community backyard. People wanted entry into the area to be as convenient as possible.

“It’s really important for us to be able to get people into the park and into the historic site so they can experience it and understand its importance in Oak Park,” Thompson said.

The park district and the foundation decided that during the fence restoration project, a new entry would be created, and a new path cut through the park, leading from the new entryway on Home Avenue to Marion Street on the west side of the park.

“It will really create a much more welcoming entrance,” Thompson said.

“That’s a big difference that people will notice,” added Gilbert.

The project costs will be funded through the park district’s Capital Improvement Budget, but the $400,000 price tag has still drawn some questions. “There has been some talk,” Thompson said. But that was the reason for the historic structure report that the foundation completed in 2001, which outlined plans for the property. “With any built environment, you have to maintain it … or it will continue to go into disrepair and eventually fall down or cause injuries,” she said.

“Eventually, it becomes a public-safety issue,” said Gilbert. “The fence could theoretically fall over and pose a danger, and if nothing got done to it, then it would eventually deteriorate to where a wonderful historic resource would be unrestorable,” he said. The consensus is that the fence can and should be preserved in its original form.

This project should extend the fence’s lifetime by at least another century. “It likely will not need an overhaul for 100 years, maybe more,” said Thompson. “It might need a little bit of paint, but the paint process that we’re putting on is good for decades.”

The work is being completed by two separate companies: Restore Masonry for the stone and masonry work, and Midwest Fence for the steel work. The project began in mid-March, when Midwest Fence began to take down the fence and remove it to an off-site location to complete the restoration work. Once the fence is removed entirely, Thompson said, Restore Masonry will begin its stone work. The project is slated for completion in June.

The park district and Pleasant Home Foundation have other plans for the future of Mills Park, which include some landscaping, tree planting, and possibly the replication of the fountain that once sat in the middle of the property’s gardens. But Thompson said there are other priorities right now. “Our goal is to not do it with taxpayer dollars,” she said of future work. “Our goal is to do it with donations.”

It’s all part of the plan to keep the 4½ acres of green space, which Thompson said is at a premium in Oak Park, flourishing for village residents. “They really are very passionate, very affectionate, toward this park. They want to see it thrive,” she said. “It’s a beautiful park for the neighborhood.”

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