In 2010 an architecturally significant home in the 800 block of Park Avenue in River Forest, designed by William Drummond, local resident and prominent architect, was demolished and replaced. Today an architecturally significant home at 930 Ashland in River Forest, designed by Harry Robinson, an employee and associate of Frank Lloyd Wright, is scheduled for demolition.
Both of these lost homes were sufficiently significant to be included in the 1981 Guide To River Forest Architecture edited by the late Jeanette Fields. They were two of the 80-plus homes specifically described in the book.
In neither case did the owners of these homes even talk to the River Forest Historic Preservation Commission (HPC), nor were they required to under the village’s existing ordinance. In neither case were we able to explain to owners why the homes were significant to River Forest or were we given a chance to suggest alternatives to demolition.
The River Forest HPC is recommending several changes to our Preservation Ordinance based on eight years of experience. The most important change requires that owners of “significant Properties” appear before the commission to discuss proposed demolitions. Before a significant property is demolished, the neighbors, the community and other interested parties, and the HPC should have an opportunity to comment on the demolition and to suggest alternatives. The commission will have the option of approving or denying the demolition, and a denial could be appealed to the River Forest Board of Trustees.
What is a significant property?
The recent village-wide survey, conducted by the Lakota Group under the direction of the HPC, identified 298 significant properties in River Forest out of 2,969 examined. They include such architectural gems as Wrights’ Winslow, Davenport, and Isabel Roberts houses, as well as houses and commercial and public structures designed by William Drummond, Talmadge & Watson, E.E. Roberts, John Van Bergen, Purcell & Elmslie, Harry Robinson and many others.
Before our current ordinance was established, many in the village believed prices of significant River Forest homes were too expensive to purchase for demolition and replacement and that this was protection enough. But a million-dollar-plus price tag is no longer a guarantee of protection.
What impact can public comment or delay have on demolition? In 2006, a gracious but neglected home on the 600 block of Franklin in River Forest was to be demolished and replaced with two homes.
Neighborhood alarm arose at not only the loss of this home, but at the impact on the block. It was understood that this change would not only alter the large-lot character of the block but would encourage other homeowners to similarly subdivide and further affect neighborhood character.
A “blue-ribbon” campaign was mounted that resulted in ribbons tied on parkway trees throughout the village in support of no demolition. The developer subsequently sold the house to owners who have beautifully restored it. Public comment can make a difference.
Why should I comment on what my neighbors do with their property? People are not only drawn to River Forest for our excellent schools and our convenience to Chicago. We are privileged to live in a village with an extraordinary architectural heritage of which we are stewards. Surely it is reasonable to at least have a discussion before the destruction of those best elements of our architectural and historic legacy, which have contributed to the charm and attraction of River Forest for well over 50 years, so that we may fully understand what is being lost, and possibly seek alternatives.
We are a community. We are not merely investors or home owners who live in close proximity. Since River Forest was founded in 1880, residents have understood that we have many interests in common. We, as a community, have not only the right to comment on permanent changes to River Forest, but we have the responsibility to encourage the preservation of the best of what we have been privileged to enjoy.
Please join us in September for a hearing on our proposals (date to be announced). Meanwhile, communicate with village trustees with your thoughts on our proposals.
Laurel McMahon is a member of the River Forest Historic Preservation Commission.