The economic arguments against preserving the Dreschler, Brown, & Williams Funeral Home are powerful, but the ease with which the Oak Park Village Board just overturned the Historic Preservation Commission’s (HPC) unanimous recommendation is disturbing. If the site were developed with a structure in scale with the original house and comparable to it in setbacks and greenery, we could overlook the board’s dismissal of the HPC’s concern for the integrity of this vintage neighborhood. But given the village’s evident addiction to high-density development, the site seems destined for more of the same.
Promises of a building “less than 12 stories high” at 203 S. Marion are hardly reassuring. The view north from the 100 block of South Maple to the backside of Eleven33 demonstrates the jarring effect of a 10-story building planted on a vintage neighborhood; at the intersection of Marion and Pleasant, a similar effect would be compounded by the shadows cast by a much taller building on the southwest corner. Concern over what will take the place of the funeral home building reflects an erosion of public trust in the process and the course of development locally.
This developer’s assertion that they don’t yet have a definite plan for the site is risible. If we can believe this claim, the Board’s decision only affirms many Oak Parkers’ conviction that the Village is subservient to the wishes of developers; if not, we can conclude that the two cooperate in an opaque development process designed to evade public scrutiny and avoid community opposition until too late.
As troubling as this process and the prospect of what might come to 203 S. Marion are some trustees’ stunning dismissal of “these big Victorian homes [as] monuments to white wealth” and the “properties of white people who stole from indigenous people.” The implication that Oak Park’s architectural legacy is antipathetic to its aspirations toward social, racial, and economic justice is appalling coming from those elected to serve the best interests of our community. From this perspective, virtually all existing structures within our borders are shameful vestiges of privilege — not excepting the new high-rent high-rises that have made Lake Street a corridor of gentrification. Historic preservation is inconvenient, but if all of Oak Park is “open for business” for developers, will anyone want to come? Tourists and residents aren’t drawn here for bluestone sidewalks and brick-paved intersections.
In guiding real estate development, the village board is entrusted with safeguarding not only outstanding individual buildings but the “contributing structures” that comprise a living, contextualized architectural history. This board needs to show greater respect for it. Allowing that this former longtime funeral home’s building is economically irredeemable, they must ensure that what gets built in its place will be worthy of its site and of Oak Park’s reputation for architectural excellence. At the very least, we deserve a structure that complements and contributes to this central neighborhood.
With apologies to Joe Biden, please demonstrate that you can be trusted to “build back better” within our borders.
Wendy Greenhouse is a resident of Oak Park.