The non-denominational Free Church has successfully purchased the Arts Center of Oak Park, 200 N. Oak Park Ave., for an undisclosed amount. Constructed in 1916, the neo-classical building was built to house the First Church of Christ Scientist of Oak Park. The congregation dwindled by the 1980s and relocated to a smaller church in River Forest. In 1988, Chatka Ruggiero a local apartment building owner and animal advocate purchased the building.
Under Ruggiero’s ownership the building has been used as a venue for concerts, recitals and art exhibitions. For many years its lower level housed the Hemingway Museum.
“I thought that it would make a great performing center,” Ruggiero said of the purchase. “And also, I wanted to save that building.”
Despite its venerable age and character, the building has not achieved landmark status. However, it is a contributing structure in Frank Lloyd Wright-Prairie School of Architecture Historic District, meaning it retains historic integrity and was built within a period of architectural significance, according to Susie Trexler, Oak Park’s historic preservation urban planner.
The ambition to convert the building into a space shared by different arts groups never really materialized, according to Ruggiero, as each group wanted exclusive access.
About six months after Ruggiero took over ownership, she began letting the basement out to the Hemingway Foundation where it served as a museum to the beloved Oak Park author until 2017.
The Arts Center was never a moneymaking venture for Ruggiero. The large building with its multiple roof levels requires maintenance and commanded hefty real estate taxes – a lot to contend with for an individual owner.
“It never paid my bills,” said Ruggiero.
In June of 2017, shortly after the Hemingway Foundation left, Free Church began leasing the Arts Center. Ruggiero called the church a “perfect fit.”
“They loved the building and their congregation grew tremendously,” she said.
While the building is officially returning to its roots as a place of religious worship, Ruggiero said Free Church has agreed to continue renting the space to artists in need of concert space.
Free Church had a bit of a winding journey to the Arts Center of Oak Park. The church was started by Pastor Chuck Colegrove and his wife Urshanna in 2012 and for the first three years of its life, the church met at the Lake Theater. It then moved its worship services to Horace Mann Elementary School before finally putting down roots at the Arts Center.
The sale of the property to Free Church went through Monday, Nov. 2, fulfilling a longtime aspiration for the Colegroves and the church.
“It’s definitely been a goal for us to own property in Oak Park and build a church that is a church for generations,” said Colegrove. “As the opportunity came available, we worked hard, we saved our money and we were able to execute the contract.”
Colegrove and his wife came to Oak Park from Houston, Texas with the dream of opening a church that was reflective of the village’s socioeconomic and cultural diversity.
“And really from day one – we had our first service September 9, 2012 – we’ve seen that representation of Oak Park in our community of the church,” said Colegrove.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Free Church had a weekend service attendance of about 500 people. Like most churches, Free Church has had to switch to a virtual worship model. Still, the congregation is excited to finally call the Arts Center its official home.
“We’re excited about this opportunity to be in that building. It’s a historic building, a beautiful building,” said Colegrove. “And we’re excited to be there to be a help to the community any way that we can.”