The new lighting system in the 19th Century Club ballroom, which now produces colorful effects, can be operated by a computer tablet. | William Camargo/Staff Photographer

Oak Park’s Nineteenth Century Charitable Association is celebrating 125 years in the community. Originally known as the 19th Century Woman’s Club when it was founded in 1891, the club’s headquarters on Forest Avenue doesn’t go back quite that far — the building dates to 1928 — but the space, which has been upgraded periodically over the years was due for some major updating.

Allen Parchem of ALP Endeavors managed the project, which included long-needed improvements in the lighting and audio-visual systems. Parchem’s wife, Georga, has long volunteered with the club, and Allen noted that being in the building so frequently gave him insight into the problems the building was facing with modern technology.

“This project started in 2011 when a group of us realized the acoustics of the ballroom weren’t adequate for the kind of events we held here,” Parchem said. The quality of speech was very poor. At that time, we did a study and saw we had a substantial problem.”

The organization’s executive director, Jeanne Schultz Angel, said they were only too aware of the situation.

“The space was always a lot of hard surfaces, so we’ve known about the issues for a long time,” she said. “We wanted to be able to open our building to a variety of uses from spoken word to music to the arts.”

In 2012, a proposal was created to address various issues involving the building, but a few years of resolving tax issues with Cook County forced the proposal onto a shelf.

“We pulled out the proposal again last year,” Parchem said, “and we decided we wanted to update a few important things. We needed to improve the intelligibility of speech with large groups. We wanted to rewire the old sconces and chandeliers, and we wanted to update the AV system.”

A key to the upgrades was installing a system that could be added onto later as needs changed and making sure the upgrades could be operated easily by the nonprofit organizations that frequently use the space.

Quick turnaround

Parchem acted as general contractor for the project, managing the work of five other companies. Chicago Chandelier Restoration, owned by Oak Park resident Dominic Sibilano, restored and rewired the original chandeliers and sconces in the ballroom. Fortune Restoration of Lincolnwood provided the painting and design services. Current Electrical worked on the line voltage for the AV system; All Pro Sound did the sound and audio-visual work. Sound engineering was allocated to another Oak Parker, Rick Talaske (who did the sound in Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion).

In spite of the magnitude of the job and coordinating a lot of different interests, Parchem said everything ran on schedule. 

“The toughest thing was that it had to be done in five weeks,” he said. “A lot of people said it couldn’t be done, but we had a great group of contractors who worked really well together. The thing that was astonishing to me was the number of decisions that had to be made. I was here every day for four weeks.”

Angel praised Parchem’s dedication to the project, which cost approximately $250,000.  

“We would be lost without Allen Parchem,” she said. “He’s a volunteer but he acted as our general contractor. He’s our hero at the club. He was our driving force in getting this done. He is the definition of the word ‘stakeholder.'”

New systems

With the new systems in place, there are 12 different lighting possibilities, all controllable by iPad. From stage to architectural lighting to the rewired chandeliers and sconces, Parchem said the possibilities enable the ballroom to be used for everything from bright daytime events to dimmer events necessitating stage lighting to complement speakers and performers.

“The light scenarios can be controlled,” he said, “all through events with an iPad that mimics the main control panel on the stage.”

Speech intelligibility has been improved with the addition of acoustical materials on the perimeter walls of the room and the ceiling. Parchem noted that, prior to installation, the acoustic materials were a tough sell.

“When we first decided to go ahead with the project,” he recalled, “I brought the board down and they did not want the appearance of the room to change. They didn’t want to the acoustical tiles to be noticeable.”

He credits the team from Fortune Restoration with camouflaging the tiles. “You never think about grey and beige going together, but thanks to Fortune Restoration, you can see the colors really go together. They also used a china white color that helped everything blend. The team leader, Jose, with our approval, painted the friezes over the doors and really made the right choices with colors.”

In addition to the wiring, painting and lighting, small changes helped give the ballroom a new lease on life. Radiator covers were installed, and the drapes were cleaned and restored, which provided a $12,000 savings over buying new window treatments.

Parchem is pleased with the results, pointing out that the new sound system and the projector system will come in handy for many groups interested in using the space.

A community resource

He believes the changes make the club even more of a resource for the community of Oak Park.

“I always thought the space had great potential,” Parchem said. “I thought it would be great to have a place to promote the arts and bring the community together. There’s really no place like this between downtown and Oak Brook. I think it’s pretty special.”

Angel agrees. “Our vision is to be a vibrant center for culture in the local area and the region. With that mindset, we’d like to expand on what we have. We have about 370 events a year here, and we have the capacity to do more.”

Calling the club primarily a space for promoting the humanities, with public programming in the arts, social sciences, literature and history among other fields, she is excited that groups such as the Illinois Association of Museums will be able to use the club for meetings.

“To open our building to the community was very, very appealing to us. Our main purpose is reaching out and trying to make this a truly unique and special place, useful to a lot of organizations. We’re in downtown Oak Park right next to the Green Line and parking. Our location can’t be beat.”

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