The Oak Park Board of Trustees will soon decide the fate of a nearly 100-year-old building on Madison Street that was once among the biggest attractions on that commercial corridor.
The building at 644 Madison St., built in 1925 and modified a few years later, designed by E.E. and Elmer Roberts, was one of the crown jewels of “Motor Row” when that area of Oak Park was one of the top places in the Chicago area to buy a car.
The Hill Motor Sales Company building, which originally sold Packard brand vehicles, later became known as the Foley-Rice building and was still selling vehicles into the late 20th century.
For more than a decade, though, the building has sat vacant and fallen into disrepair.
It is slated for demolition at some future date to make way for a second Oak Park Pete’s Fresh Market grocery store, under a deal brokered by the village of Oak Park. But that plan could be in jeopardy, following a recent recommendation by the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission, which voted unanimously to declare the building a historic landmark.
Oak Park Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb said in an email response to questions that the development, which includes a senior housing facility on the south side of Madison Street along with the Pete’s, has the potential to transform the commercial corridor.
“Naturally, the historic preservation is presented with just one component of this development, but the village board is elected and tasked with the responsibility to consider all competing interests, evaluate its costs and benefits, and advance the interests of the village taken as a whole,” he wrote.
That vote from the Historic Preservation Commission came at the request of local historian Frank Lipo, executive director of the Oak Park River Forest Museum, and Oak Park architect Frank Heitzman.
The commission noted that the Foley-Rice building would be the 70th building in Oak Park to be given the historic landmark designation. It also would be the first landmark designation declared against the wishes of the owner, it was noted at the meeting.
Steve Foley Jr. testified at the meeting that the building is “very expensive to maintain” and “almost impossible to heat.”
Only a handful of groups have looked into purchasing the building over the last decade or so, including the grocery store chain Aldi. That company “got scared away because of potential historic preservation,” Foley said.
“Yes, it’s a cool-looking building, but being on the market for 13 years, I think the market speaks for itself,” Foley said. “There’s no demand, no interest, no want, no need for this building.”
Lipo sees it differently, noting that the building is a good candidate for adaptive reuse, especially considering the village is using money from the Madison Street Tax Increment Finance (TIF) District to bring a second Pete’s to Oak Park.
“We are pursuing this because for 10 years it’s been identified as a very important building and meets multiple criteria to be an Oak Park landmark and that, we would hope, preservation would be part of the larger solution for the redevelopment of that site,” Lipo told the commission.
The building has a number of issues and would require substantial renovation to remove a large concrete ramp inside the structure and repair terra cotta features on the structure’s exterior.
The building is unique in its so-called “grotesques,” a decorative feature on buildings — often mythical figures similar to gargoyles, but in this case whimsically depicting auto mechanics and men driving vehicles.
Heitzman said during a recent tour of the building’s exterior that demolition of the structure is also an environmental issue. “The greenest building is the one that’s already there,” according to Lipo.
Getting the Oak Park Board of Trustees to agree might be a tough sell.
The board approved the redevelopment agreement with Pete’s for the location at the end of 2018, just before the expiration of the Madison Street Tax Increment Finance (TIF) District.
It is uncertain whether that plan could be altered substantially if Pete’s drops out of the deal since the TIF has expired.
Abu-Taleb noted that the building has been vacant for nearly two decades, and, “During this time, not a single person has come forward to purchase the building simply for the sake of preserving it or its characteristics, and no action has been taken to change its historical status.”
He encouraged all interested parties to “come together to support these investors, welcome these new jobs, and unleash the Madison Street potential.”