Oak Park Village Hall is awash in symbolism. From its chosen location on Oak Park’s east side to the seating arrangements in the council chamber where our elected officials sit lower than the people who chose them as representatives, this public building is the definition of intentional.

Last week we reported that the National Park Service, curators of the National Register of Historic Places, had acted favorably on an application from Oak Park for the recognition. Congratulations and thanks to local architect and active citizen Frank Hitzeman for his lead role in crafting the expansive application.

We’re enthused to note that the approval is based on both the significance of the site chosen by village leaders in the early 1970s as well as the architectural strength of the project.

Forty years after the fact, there are likely a majority of Oak Parkers who simply take the hall’s location at Madison Street and Lombard Avenue for granted. But its location is no accident. Those were the early days of Oak Park’s bold, unheard-of effort to marshal all resources to foster racial integration as the West Side continued to resegregate at a furious speed. East of Ridgeland was the front line and many citizens and most casual observers had already written off that section of the village as lost.

So the decision to buy the Dick Fencl Chevy dealership, and a dozen houses south of it, and invest millions in a new home for village government, including, notably, its police department, was considered either inspired or lunatic. Four decades later, the neighborhood, like all of Oak Park, is vital and diverse.

As they were bold in choosing a site, that remarkable John Gearen-led village board was also visionary in choosing Harry Weese as the architect. In a clear break from the Corinthian columns of the decaying village hall at Lake Street and Euclid Avenue, Weese was given great latitude to design a public building that spoke of open and transparent government. Perhaps you’ve noticed that most village employees sit out in the open, that most of the private offices have walls that stop well short of the ceiling. 

We’re not entirely dewey-eyed. Monday night the village board OK’d spending up to $445,000 on a new air-conditioning system for a building that has had trouble regulating both hot and cold since day one. The fountain on Madison Street leaked into the police department below. And the large public plaza facing Madison Street has never exactly attracted a crowd to its ill-defined purpose.

That said, village hall remains one of Oak Park’s stellar accomplishments from an era that explains and challenges the community we’ve become.

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