The Drechsler, Brown & Williams Funeral Home in Oak Park may soon be laid to rest. The Oak Park Village Board voted unanimously, Oct. 5, to issue a certificate of appropriateness for demolition, taking the recommendation of village staff over that of the Historic Preservation Commission.
“While we respect the Historic Commission’s thorough review of the situation, we just have a difference in opinion,” said Tammie Grossman, Oak Park development/customer services director. “Staff believes it’s no longer a contributing structure to the historic district.”
Located at 203 S. Marion St. in the Ridgeland-Oak Park Historic District, the building was constructed in 1881 as a single-family home for early Oak Park settler James Campbell Rogers and his family. Several reincarnations since then included being converted into apartments in 1920 and construction of a brick addition in 1957.
“We feel that the building has been altered significantly in that it no longer maintains the same historical characteristics as it once did when it was first built,” said Grossman.
The building became a funeral home in 1927 and has continued to operate as one for over 100 years. Drechsler Brown’s current owners, Charles and Lynne Williams, are looking to retire and sell the property to Focus Development. The Williams family was unable to sell to a different funeral operator, despite efforts to do so.
Focus has already constructed multiple buildings in Oak Park, including Euclid Commons, the multi-building residential, retail and parking complex at Lake Street and Euclid Avenue. The development company plans to build an apartment complex under 12 stories in height on the funeral home property, which is expansive by Oak Park standards. Focus has hired former Plan Commission Chair David Mann as the project’s architect.
“It supports our economy and it supports our small businesses when we have more people living in Oak Park and supports revenue in terms of property taxes,” Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb said of allowing demolition.
The Historic Preservation Commission voted against giving a certificate of appropriateness for demolition during its Sept. 10 meeting, believing the funeral home and its garage serve as anchors in the district, allowing people to understand Oak Park’s first phase of development. The commission also felt the structure could be converted into office space or back into a home — expensive endeavors, according to estimates made by real estate firm CBRE.
In a letter of support for issuing a certificate of appropriateness for demolition, Oak Park Economic Development Corporation (OPEDC) Executive Director John Lynch stated that CBRE estimated it would cost $1.2 million to convert the property into offices on top of the as-is market value, $795,000, determined by a 2017 appraisal.
The cost to return the structure to its original single-family home use would cost just as much, according to OPEDC. Trustee Jim Taglia called it a difficult sell.
“Not to mention, who is going to live there? The Addams Family?” Taglia asked.
Trustee Susan Buchanan understood why people would feel sad at losing Drechsler Brown, but she called many of the homes built during that time representative of racial wealth disparity.
“These big Victorian homes were monuments to white wealth,” said Buchanan.
As such, she said she would not miss some of them “to some extent.” She also stated no wealthy family would move into Drechsler Brown and renovate it.
“I’m ready to move onto transit-oriented, high-density development on some of these lots,” said Buchanan.
To which Abu-Taleb replied, “High-density — that’s my favorite!”
Trustee Deno Andrews felt fine with issuing a certificate for demolition, as long as the public knew what the tradeoff was, while Trustee Dan Moroney felt maintaining the property’s current use is not viable and reverting the building back into a home uneconomical.
Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla felt similarly to Buchanan.
“I don’t know why we’re trying to preserve properties of white people who stole land from indigenous people,” said Walker-Peddakotla. “I fundamentally can’t understand that.”
She also noted that Oak Park has multiple properties associated with James Campbell Rogers’ name, including his daughter’s home, which Rogers hired Frank Lloyd Wright to design.
In regard to historic preservation of single-family homes, Walker-Peddakotla felt imposed regulations “could be construed to be a form of contemporary redlining.”