Who wouldn’t want immediate access to a reputable and well-managed grocery store literally one block away from their home? As a direct neighbor to the proposed Pete’s grocery site, I am looking forward to this extreme convenience and addition to the much-needed revitalization of this portion of the Madison Street corridor.

I believe that good development is crucial for this community to continue to thrive and sometimes insignificant, poorly designed existing structures must be removed to make way for economic growth.

That said, I am shocked by the current plan for the complete demolition of 644 Madison St., also known as the Foley-Rice or Hill Motor Co. building, to make way for this new construction (minus the token gesture of the awkward replacement of a few stone grotesques on an otherwise static, blank wall).

The current plan is not only in direct violation of Oak Park’s zoning ordinance design standards, the lackluster design screams of indifference to Oak Park’s longstanding tradition of design excellence. 

Of important note, the Hill Motor Co. building was also included on the 2019 Most Endangered list by Landmarks Illinois, a revered organization that provides expertise to hundreds of communities across Illinois. 

Oak Park is home to countless housewalks, 64 local landmarks, four National Historic Landmarks, and even a UNESCO World Heritage site all because of their outstanding architectural value. Pete’s has a golden opportunity to embrace their commitment to our community’s values by salvaging at least the south and east facades of the Hill Motor Co building, maintaining the history and character of the area. There are several design solutions that would accommodate the preservation of a small portion of this building without sacrificing the new construction’s structural integrity or the store’s necessary space requirements.

Oak Park is primarily recognized internationally for two reasons: Ernest Hemingway and great architecture. The impact that architecture has made on Oak Park is undeniable. We have the honor and responsibility of protecting the legacy of the most influential architect in the world, Frank Lloyd Wright, and his contemporaries (including the renowned Hill Motor Co. architect, E.E. Roberts) who have contributed mightily to the cultural and economic success of our village. 

Imagine an Oak Park without Pleasant Home, which narrowly escaped demolition in the 1960s. Imagine an Oak Park without our adored Conservatory, set for demolition in 1970 until a group of concerned citizens organized to save it. Imagine if the 299-foot high-rise proposal in the Hemingway District came to be, towering over its neighboring buildings and trees while casting intrusive shadows over Unity Temple which is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site (there are only 24 in the entire country!) and located a mere six blocks from the proposed Pete’s site.

It is disheartening that in 2020, over 40 years after the restoration efforts of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home & Studio began, the potential for the complete demolition of this 1924 building is even on the table. I challenge the elected officials, staff and developer to embrace the rich history and architecture of this building and provide a revised proposal that successfully integrates the new building within the historic facade, setting a positive precedent for the future.

Heidi Ruehle is executive director of Unity Temple Restoration Foundation, 875 Lake St. (708-260-6661, utrf.org). She works in the historic preservation field and has been an Oak Park resident since 1997. Unity Temple is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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