By the time you read this, our village trustees may have made their decision on the Albion proposal to build an 18-story building at the corner of Lake Street and Forest Avenue.
I propose adding a story. Not to the building. To the discussion.
It’s a long story, but a good one, a story about stages of development at that corner, which goes all the way back to the first Anglo settlers of Oak Park — then known as Oak Ridge. Joseph and Betty Kettlestrings arrived in the early 1830s, about the time the Black Hawk War drove the native Potawatomis out of Illinois. Not one of this nation’s finest hours.
Suddenly there was a lot of land for the acquiring and the Kettlestrings bought most of what is now west central Oak Park, and then, little by little, sold it off. But they didn’t sell all of it. According to Gertrude Fox Hoagland’s 1937 book, Historical Survey of Oak Park, Illinois, “When Joseph Kettlestrings returned to Oak Park early in 1854, he donated land at the [northwest] corner of Lake and Forest, on which a one-story, frame structure was built (1855) for a school and meeting house, with the understanding that when a permanent school was erected, the corner property could revert to him.” It was the village’s first school, with less than 20 students under the watchful tutelage of Principal A.D. Thomas.
In 1859, Oak Ridge School was built kitty corner (you can still see the cornerstone in the ground near the sidewalk on the south side of Lake Street), which later became known as Central School, then Lowell School, in a larger building that was torn down in the 1970s to make way for a controversial high-rise development, which never got further than its infamous name, “Stankus Hole” — for the crater that sat like an aborted quarry for years. Eventually, 100 Forest Place, our first true high-rise, rose there in the 1980s.
Also in 1859, Henry Austin Sr. bought the Kettlestrings’ property across the street, which extended from the corner west along Lake Street almost to Marion and north to Ontario, where Austin Gardens is located. The Austins originally built their home roughly where the Lake Theatre sits now. At the corner, they left the one-story frame building for public use, renaming it “Temperance Hall.” Henry Sr. was an enthusiastic teetotaler who famously bought out the last tavern in town and took an axe to the last barrels of booze in stock. Oak Park stayed “dry” until 1972.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union used the hall for meetings, but it also hosted “public rallies, dances and church services,” according to Philander Barclay, who included an 1885 photo of the building in his famous collection of snapshots.
The hall became known as “the cradle of churches,” with Congregational, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal congregations holding services there until their respective churches were built, eventually lining Lake Street to the point where Oak Park became known as “the place where taverns end and steeples begin.” African American residents also met there before Mt. Carmel Church was completed on what is now Westgate.
Barclay noted that in Temperance Hall, “Virginia reels were danced and amateur plays given within its doors. … Until 1900, when it was torn down, it was one of Oak Park’s most famous landmarks.”
You can see Barclay’s photo at the Historical Society’s new Oak Park River Forest Museum, 129 Lake St. “The wood frame holding the photo was made from the front door casing, the only thing left from the school house,” according to a photo caption in the Oak Leaves on Dec. 4, 1968, showing Wallis Austin, Henry Sr.’s grandson, presenting the framed photograph to members of the newly formed Historical Society. Wallis’ father, Henry Jr., started Oak Park Trust and Savings Bank in 1892 and in 1923 completed the familiar pillared edifice at the corner of Lake and Marion (now Chase Bank). For decades it served as the financial cornerstone of the community.
Barclay gave the framed photo to Henry Jr. in 1935, with the stipulation that “at the proper time, the bank would turn this relic over to the Oak Park Historical Society.”
In the mid-’30s at the height of the Depression, Oak Park Trust, like a lot of banks, was in trouble. To keep it afloat, Henry Jr. sold off the Lake Street frontage all the way to the corner of Lake and Forest. He had his house moved to the north (roughly where the Austin Gardens Environmental Education Center is located). The Lake Theatre opened in 1936.
According to a map of that area, by 1950 a service station existed to the east of the theater, followed by a small surface parking lot, and a corner lunch counter. The Oak Leaves carried an article with a rendering of a $1.5 million shopping center planned for the site. Construction was set to start in March of 1950. It never came together, but it may have inspired Oak Park resident Willard W. Cole, president of Lytton’s (aka “The Hub”) to have a similar structure built on that corner and relocate from 1035 Lake (the general vicinity of The Book Table) which they had occupied since 1927. Lytton’s, in fact, was the first “State Street store” to open in Oak Park, preceding Marshall Field’s.
The new Lytton’s building was designed by the architectural firm Shaw, Mertz and Dolio and at the groundbreaking in May of 1956, among the notables in attendance, was President Eisenhower’s brother, Earl. In May of 1957, the store’s grand opening was a big enough deal for the Oak Leaves to devote an entire special section to it.
Sometime in 1985 or early 1986, just shy of Lytton’s 100th anniversary in Chicago, the store closed and became a non-descript office building with ground floor retail (and, for a time, the Visitor Center gift shop).
Frank Lipo, executive director of the Historical Society, says the history of downtown Oak Park is “layer upon layer of buildings.” It’s possible another layer is about to be laid.
I’m not proposing a monument to Lytton’s or the Austin family or to Temperance Hall. But the opposition to Albion has been making the case, and making it well, that there is more to development in Oak Park than merely economic. This corner encompasses Oak Park’s earliest history, its school history, church history and commercial history — and now, perhaps, its high-rise history.
If Albion gets built, it won’t be the end of the world. If it doesn’t get built, it won’t be the end of the world. It won’t even be the end of the story, which is ongoing.
But before we take any step, we should know what we’re stepping on.