In the fall of 2014 Oak Park Village Hall was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. An important social factor for its designation is that village hall, completed in 1975, was intentionally located on the east side of the village as a statement to residents that Oak Park would actively resist the re-segregation that was rapidly taking place in Austin. It thus became a significant use of architecture to strengthen the stability of the community.
In 1974, four decades earlier, another architectural event took place, the establishment of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio Foundation. This past spring and summer the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust (the expanded Home & Studio Foundation), honored the 40th anniversary of its beginnings here in Oak Park.
In 1983, the Ernest Hemingway Foundation was established.
But the historic listing of village hall in 2014 and the founding of the Home & Studio and Hemingway foundations are part of a larger story of historic preservation here. That story began unfolding in Oak Park as early as 1946, more than a quarter-century before the Home & Studio’s founding.
Building a tourist trade
For the architectural heritage story, we can use 1974 as the pivotal date for recounting how Oak Park strove to assure its viability as a community. The main challenge to that viability was the resegregation of the Austin neighborhood of Chicago, immediately to the east of us. We were also facing the economic threat posed by the development of the far western suburbs, which threatened the viability of our commercial districts. Thirdly, our aging building stock needed protection and restoration.
What Oak Park had going for it was a history of independence and community involvement. By voting in 1952 for a “village manager” form of government, the village gained control of its own destiny, giving it the flexibility and autonomy it needed to respond to our growing urban challenges. The village board and its many advisory commissions kept the public involved in and informed about all aspects of local government.
In addition, nonprofit organizations were formed in response to specific situations. With an established tradition of community involvement, Oak Park had no shortage of volunteers to serve the village and other elected boards, as well as nonprofit boards. Well-educated citizens through various action committees provided their time, expertise, and energy.
Historic preservation became one essential element in stabilizing the community. The preservation story closely paralleled and dovetailed with that of the Fair Housing Movement (1963-68), the establishment of the Oak Park Housing Center (1972) and with the economic initiatives of the Oak Park Development Corporation (1974).
In other words, the preservation movement in Oak Park, did not happen in isolation. Given the community’s long architectural history and its collection of significant structures, local leaders embraced and helped build the momentum for preservation that was also happening at national, state, and Chicago-area levels. The difference was that we had a much higher concentration of buildings to protect than most other communities. In addition we had the strong, spontaneous leadership of insightful individuals who could focus on specific causes and coordinate the efforts of enthusiastic citizen volunteers.
No discussion of historic preservation can take place without naming key institutions and programs that define and support that process.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation was established in 1949 and funded by the federal government until the 1990s. As a private, non-governmental agency, its role is to encourage preservation and, in some cases, to actually own historic properties (which has included the Wright Home & Studio). The National Trust also started its National Treasures program (which included Wright’s Robie House in Hyde Park), and each year it publishes a list of Most Endangered Historical Places (which includes Wright’s Unity Temple).
The National Park Service, an agency within the Department of the Interior, was created in 1916. In 1960, its National Historic Landmark program was established to designate specific buildings as very important to the nation. Illinois has 86 national historic landmark buildings and Oak Park has four. There are about 2,500 of these in the U.S.
In 1966, the National Park Service created the National Register of Historic Places. Oak Park has four national historic districts on the Register and River Forest has one. With the recent addition of village hall, Oak Park now has 11 separate buildings listed. The National Register of Historic Places includes over 85,000 sites nationwide.
The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, in addition to creating the National Register, also set up a program in each state to manage federal and state preservation. Ours is the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.
Similar in function to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois (referred to as Landmarks Illinois) was established in 1971. It, too, is a nonprofit organization for promoting historic preservation.
Lastly, Oak Park’s Historic Preservation Commission, originally created as the Landmarks Commission in 1972, maintains its own list of locally significant structures, now numbering about 60. It has designated five local historic districts, four of which are also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Since 1974, hundreds of residents have served on elected and volunteer boards, as well as commissions, committees, and interest groups. Hundreds have received training as interpreters for the Home & Studio and Unity Temple.
Oak Park and River Forest gave Frank Lloyd Wright a home for the first 20 years of his career. In return he left us a legacy of 33 private homes, the Home & Studio, and Unity Temple. Other architects contributed additional significant structures. The historic preservation of this heritage — through commissions, foundations, and national historic designations — has immeasurably enhanced our communities.
Ernest Hemingway’s legacy includes a museum and two homes (three if you count the Interim House at Chicago and Elmwood avenues).
Historic preservation also guarantees that our legacy attractions assure a steady flow of visitors to our communities. In the larger suburban context, the Visit Oak Park tourism agency, centered in the village, includes 150 member organizations from 21 west Cook County communities. Its mission is marketing the Oak Park area to tourists to enhance our economy, with every dollar spent on marketing generating $8 in revenue. The 21 communities tallied close to 2.5 million visitors in 2013. Oak Park itself had about 282,000, including the Hemingway sites, the Wright Home & Studio and Unity Temple.
The Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, of course, has its own successful marketing program. In 2013, the Wright Trust hosted a total of 140,475 people at its five sites in the Chicago area, with 92,075 visitors to the Home & Studio and 3,330 to Unity Temple (in just three months). Our Wright and Hemingway legacy draws a national and international audience.
The Wright Trust uses 650 trained volunteers to meet almost 150,000 site visitors each year, and its programs reach one million virtual visitors around the world.
Volunteers, of course, are always welcome. Private homes are often opened to support local nonprofit groups such as the Wright Trust, the Pleasant Home Foundation, the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest, the Infant Welfare Society, and Parenthesis. The Wright Trust it requires 250 volunteers to staff the Home & Studio’s schedule, with 65 more for Unity Temple. The annual Wright Plus housewalk alone requires about 600 volunteers.
Your own home may be of more interest than you think. The best way to find out is by obtaining the brochure “Researching Your Oak Park Home: A Citizen’s Guide,” published by the Historic Preservation Commission and available at village hall, the Oak Park Public Library, and the Historical Society, as well as at www.oak-park.us. At village hall, the contact person is Doug Kaare, the village’s staff liaison to the Historic Preservation Commission.
Each of the agencies and organizations mentioned in the timeline can be researched independently for details by using their respective websites. Each one has its own story and represents the involvement of scores of citizens.
But Oak Park’s story of historic preservation, now 65 years long (1946-2014), is as much about people as about agencies and places. In the timeline (see LifeLines, page 43) each listing has its own back story involving myriad committed citizens, too numerous to name. Only a few people involved in any given endeavor have been named. This overview doesn’t do justice to their efforts, but without those efforts, we would not be the community we are today. Those leaders provided the imagination and energy that actually created something new in our community by focusing the commitment of many people around them.
The preservation of Oak Park really did take a village.
Bob Trezevant, a retired District 97 instructor and 37-year resident of Oak Park, is a member of the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest.