Don’t get me wrong. As a devoted volunteer for the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust since 1978, I’ve seen firsthand the importance of Wright’s legacy here in Oak Park. I know that promoting tourism is vital for the village. I don’t question the need for a visitor center.
What I do question is its location. The present proposal for a new structure on the campus of the Home & Studio has its positive rationale, but I think it’s a nice idea for a site that is too limited in space. I would rather we follow the lead of Daniel Burnham in his thinking about Chicago: “Make no little plans.”
The best location for a new “Oak Park Architecture Center” would be in the now-vacant building just east of Unity Temple. The reuse of that building would allow a much larger program than can be built on Chicago Avenue, it would permit future expansion, and it would be next door to a UNESCO World Heritage site. The property already has parking, which may also be shared with Unity Temple.
It would be at the center of Oak Park’s architectural attractions, between our two largest national historic districts, on Lake Street, the main street of Oak Park, and across the street from Jens Jensen’s National Register Scoville Park. It would also be in close proximity to our two main downtown shopping and restaurant areas at Lake and Marion and at Lake and Oak Park Avenue.
It is close to both the Hemingway Birthplace Museum and the Arts Center auditorium. It is close to two Green Line el train stops and the Metra train station. There is ample public parking available in an already commercial area. A large architecture center would provide the appropriate scale for a visitor reception area, a venue for educational activities, an expanded bookstore area, and a museum space for permanent and temporary exhibits.
There would be plenty of administrative space for use by the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, Unity Temple Restoration Foundation, and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, which continues to occupy Unity Temple as its home.
Let’s think big in addressing a big cultural opportunity. Such a plan would show how an existing building may be reused for a new purpose, would demonstrate sustainability, and serve as the epicenter of tourism in Oak Park. The property on Lake Street already includes a preserved concession stand from the Columbian Exposition of 1893 at the rear of the lot. It would support the mission of the Trust without altering and further putting strain on the Chicago Avenue residential neighborhood. Think of the logo potential at that site.
Let’s make no little plans.
Bob Trezevant is a longtime Oak Park resident, architecture buff, and Wright Trust docent.