When Maria Emilia Fermi and her son, Brando Crawford, were looking for more space to house their language and music school, they set their sights high.
Just a few blocks north of their rented space on Oak Park Avenue, the Hales Mansion looked like it had everything they needed to grow their school and become more of a community presence.
As luck would have it, the mansion had struggled for years to find a buyer, and the pair were able to strike a bargain with the sellers.
The home at 509 N. Oak Park Ave. had been on and off the market since 2006, when it was listed for $2.65 million. Fermi and Crawford purchased it in May for $1,575,000 – almost $1 million off its 2016 asking price, and only a bit more than the seller’s $1.5 million purchase price in 2003.
Fermi and Crawford renamed their school the International Mansion of Education and Innovation and set about renovating the home to ready it to house a school.
Known as the Hales Mansion, the home was designed in 1903 by architect Henry G. Fiddelke for grain magnate Burton Fr. Hales and his wife, Frances. The Hales family lived in the home for almost 40 years until they sold the home in 1942 to the Catholic Society of Jesus who occupied the home for 43 years.
The home then returned to single-family home status, and the 9,500 square-foot residence hosted fundraisers for local charities such as the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust and the Infant Welfare Society.
It takes a village
Fermi and Crawford hired local architect Debra McQueen to assist them in making the changes necessary to meet code requirements, and she says that many village departments worked quickly to help them determine what needed to be done.
The village also approved a zoning change, allowing the new school to serve its proposed nine classrooms with seven parking spaces instead of the nine parking spaces required by the zoning code.
Village Planner Craig Failor says that no further zoning issues were raised by the conversion of a single-family home to a school, because schools are a permitted use in all residential zoning districts in the village.
Michael Bruce, zoning administrator for the village, said a school is not considered a business.
“A dwelling unit is a permitted use, and a school is a permitted use in a residential district,” Bruce said.
Fermi and Crawford also consulted with Oak Park Township Tax Assessor Ali ElSaffar about the tax implications of buying the home. ElSaffar noted that the current tax bill for the home prior to sale was roughly $65,600. He believes that may have made the house a challenge to sell in today’s tax environment.
“Especially with Congress’ recent limit of the deductibility of property taxes, it’s obvious you’d have to be in a pretty high tax bracket to be able to afford this,” ElSaffar said. “In a way, the previous tax code was making it easier to sell a house like this.”
ElSaffar said that the house might eventually be removed from the tax rolls, noting that another language school, Intercultural Montessori is tax-exempt. He says that the general rule is that all properties are taxable unless proven otherwise, and there are two prongs to becoming tax exempt.
“A school is generally a tax-exempt use, but it also has to be a not-for-profit 501c3 organization,” ElSaffar said.
Brando and Fermi say they are not sure if they will live in the home, and ElSaffar says that their choice could determine the tax situation in part.
He cited a case in which a building used for religious purposes housed a for-profit bookstore in a small portion of the building. The religious use earned an exemption, but taxes had to be paid on the portion allocated to for-profit use.
“If they live in the property, at least a portion of it would be have to be taxed,” ElSaffar said. “It muddles things up a bit.”
While the current tax bill sounds large, ElSaffar said the amount is a fraction of the total property taxes levied in the village.
“It’s well under 1 percent,” ElSaffar said. “In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a huge deal. The Cheney Mansion is already off the tax rolls because it was donated to the park district. Who really lives in mansions like that today?”
Daring to dream
Fermi and Crawford say that while buying a mansion originally seemed out of reach, they were not afraid to dream. They had lofty goals for expanding their educational outreach to language, music, and non-traditional learners, and they submitted what they call a “low-ball” offer to the sellers, explaining how their school and their charity work would positively impact the community.
Fermi founded The Language and Music School in Oak Park in 1994, just before Brando was born. It has expanded from its roots in language and music lessons to offering preschool, kindergarten and elementary school programming.
According to Crawford, many students benefit from a different kind of school environment.
“We are trying to revolutionize education,” Crawford said. “Not everyone succeeds in traditional schools with a student-teacher ratio of 30 to 1. We wanted to create something for those others and make it affordable.”
To that end, they have hired 40 teachers with real-life experience in subjects from languages to math. The International Mansion curriculum will include classes for all ages from children up to senior citizens. The school will also host concerts, speakers and live debates that will be open to the community.
Fermi says moving the school to the historic mansion is something they feel is good for them and the community.
“With the same money we’re putting into the mansion, we could’ve built something new, but this is beautiful and, in a way, recycled,” Fermi said.
Crawford added, “This is our life and our work. We considered the next 25 years of our lives and thought, ‘What’s the dream?’ We want to be non-conforming and changing the world. This is a passion and a labor of love.”
Remaking a mansion
McQueen says Fermi and Crawford’s timeline of a grand opening on Sept. 1 is not without challenges, but she has enjoyed working with the pair to make it happen.
Converting a home to a commercial building on top of fitting in all of the code requirements for a school has been a large part of the work. She also notes that the house falls within the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District.
“Certainly, the historic quality of the house greatly influenced how we wanted to proceed,” McQueen said.
Working with general contractor Ed O’Harrow and with Frank Heitzman as a consultant on code issues, they were able to incorporate the necessities, such as a new staircase for egress, fire plans, emergency lights and accessible bathrooms along with creating new practice rooms on the third floor.
At the end of the day, McQueen says that everyone involved with the project and people she speaks to in the community have been very positive about turning the home into a school.
“Doors just keep opening, and solutions just keep appearing,” McQueen said. “Everyone I talk to about the project, their faces light up and people are very excited about it being used in this way.”