I really appreciated your article by Christine Vernon in last week’s Wednesday Journal [Do we want a gateway or a wall? Homes, March 29]. The piece and your supplementary history provide a great historical perspective about Austin Gardens and the “high-rise wars.” I would add two points that I think are relevant.
As you may remember, the site for the proposed Albion building is the site of one the earliest and most important structures in Oak Park, what became known as Temperance Hall. Local historian Jean Guarino in her Oak Park: A Pictorial History (p. 17) has this to say:
“In 1855, Joseph Kettlestrings donated a lot at Forest and Lake for this nondescript white frame building that played, not one but several, leading roles in Oak Park’s history.
“The building originally served as the village’s first school from 1857-1859. As the enrollment continued to increase, the lot across Lake Street (now 100 Forest Place) was purchased and the new Oak Ridge Central School was built in 1859 [later Lowell School].
“It later became known as the ‘Mother of Churches,’ serving as the first church in this God-fearing community. At one time or another, most of the major Protestant denominations held services in this building prior to constructing their own churches.
“And finally, renamed Temperance Hall, it became a temple dedicated to sobriety by H.W. Austin Sr., and his supporters, who were responsible for the 1872 Illinois Temperance Law, which made Oak Park ‘dry’ for more than 100 years.
“The building, which was on property Kettlestrings had sold to Henry Austin, finally fell into disrepair and was razed in 1901.”
The Temperance Hall site is sacred ground in Oak Park, in more ways than one. Using the site as a public space would reconnect Austin Gardens to Lake Street and would reconnect Oak Park to its essential history.
This idea is not original to me. Remember the planning team of Crandall and Arambula a number of years back? Several of us worked with them on visions for Downtown Oak Park. It was their idea (as I remember) to put a public space there as both a physical focus for downtown and as a focus for the community.
Put the Visitor Center next to it, and you have the makings for a huge community asset.