In the good old days when cars were king, they built car dealerships to last.

Here in Oak Park we’ve got one final dealership on the north side of Madison Street that has outlasted multiple brands of cars that used to be sold there — think Packard, think Mercury. And now, entirely vacant for well more than a decade, it has outlasted any hope that the good old free market is going to claim it with all its handsomeness and all its decay and put it back in use.

Packaged with the real estate Oak Park’s village government has too long owned on the north side of Madison at Oak Park Avenue, the vacant Packard building, 644 Madison, is to become home to a second Oak Park location of Pete’s Fresh Market and some other small retail.

Now there’s an idea that makes sense. Who could object? Empty, untaxed land. An obsolete car dealership. Turned into a property- and sales-tax-generating machine with a trusted vendor and no height issues.

This should have been easy.

 But this is Oak Park so here comes the screwball twist. Last week the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission voted unanimously to recommend that the Packard building be preserved. Perhaps the commission should also recommend that the Packard Company spring back into life and again produce luxury automobiles that could be sold out of this relic.

Any of this sound familiar? That’s because half a decade ago under pressure from the very same preservationists, Oak Park tried and failed to convince Aldi to buy this property, preserve the greater part of the façade so that it could sell groceries at discount prices. Shockingly, Aldi chose to build its medium-sized box store elsewhere.

The building has only decayed since then.

At that point, at least, the preservation commission admitted that saving the entire building was unlikely since the back third of the structure is a series of ramps designed to move Packards from one level to the next. Hard to incorporate ramps into a grocery store — into any use other than a defunct car brand.

I like this building. And I loved when, back in the 1980s, the Cadillac dealer across the street bought the building and removed the stunningly hideous metal grating that had covered the façade for several decades. It is a handsome building. E.E. Roberts was a famous architect for good reason. 

But unless the preservationists have a way to fund its continued use as an empty shell, have a scheme to provide taxpayers with the millions of dollars lost if the Pete’s Market deal goes south, then it is time to save the fascinating gargoyles built into the façade and let progress take its course.

There was a moment when Madison Street in Oak Park was the car-buying destination of Chicago. From the 1920s and into the mid-1960s, Madison Street was home to every major car brand. Village hall now sits on the old Chevy dealership. There are townhouses at Madison and Wisconsin where they used to sell Oldsmobiles. Where Sugar Beet sells organic produce, they used to peddle Fords. There is a branch of Chase bank on the old Clark Pontiac site on the northwest corner of Madison and Oak Park. Soon there will be senior housing where Foley-Rice last sold Cadillacs on the south side of the street. 

Back in the day, they built edifices becoming America’s love affair with cars. It is hard to fathom, but as many years have passed since the car dealers abandoned Oak Park as the golden age of car sales lasted in the village. That might be the signal that it is time to fully move forward. 

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Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...

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