A longtime Oak Parker wrote to Wednesday Journal reminiscing about reading in a comfortable chair by a fireplace in the old Scoville Mansion, which stood where today’s Main Library is, and wondered if the village’s memory for that building and its legacy have faded as newer buildings rotate through the prominent site on Lake Street and Oak Park Avenue.
A trip to the Oak Park River Forest Historical Society shows he is remembering the stone Scoville Institute, which preceded the present day library on that spot from 1888 to 1962.
The grand Victorian mansion once inhabited by the Scovilles was east of the Institute, up the hill in what is today Scoville Park. The mansion only existed a couple of decades before meeting the wrecking ball, and the Institute made it almost 75 years before meeting the same fate, but James Scoville and his family have had more than 150 years of influence on the community.
Frank Lipo, executive director of the Oak Park River Forest Historical Society, says that the role the Scovilles played in developing Oak Park is stronger than many know.
“Today, people know the street, the park and the Scoville Institute that’s carved into the stone over the library,” Lipo said. “What’s often forgotten is all the money and influence in commercial development. This is really a story about how Oak Park was shaped by one person.”
James Scoville was born in New York state in 1825 to a family of limited means. He taught school and made shoes in his spare time before he travelled to Illinois. In 1848, he was walking from Chicago to Beloit, Wisconsin, when, according to legend, he stopped to enjoy the shade of an oak tree in what is now Scoville Park. He vowed to return to the area, and in 1857, he did so, purchasing the land where that oak tree grew from early Oak Park settler Joseph Kettlestrings.
It was the first of many land purchases in and around Oak Park for the budding developer. In 1863, Scoville and Milton Niles purchased 40 acres of land and together in 1867, built the first four houses on Maple Avenue.
In 1868, Scoville purchased the land from Oak Park Avenue to East Avenue from roughly Lake Street to Chicago Avenue, and he later partnered with others to purchase acreage east of Ridgeland Avenue that became a larger neighborhood in east Oak Park when it was incorporated by the village.
Scoville also worked as the president of Prairie State Bank and is remembered for his love of literature and recitation of poetry to waiting commuters at the local train station. At first, Scoville and his wife, Mary, lived in a modest house on the land Scoville had purchased from Kettlestrings. He later donated that home to a nearby church and built a grand, 20-room mansion on the hill where the World War I monument stands in today’s Scoville Park.
While he was building his real estate empire, Scoville was also taking an interest in civic life in the community. He contributed the land at Lake Street and Forest Avenue for the construction of Lowell School and provided the town with a fresh water supply by building a reservoir on North Boulevard between Oak Park Avenue and Euclid Avenue.
The Scoville family was prominent in the establishment and construction of a church that stood where First United Church is today, where they were members, and also aided in the construction of what is now Pilgrim Church, both on Lake Street.
In 1883, James Scoville invited 13 friends to form the board of trustees for a new library, which was to be called the Scoville Institute. He endowed $115,000 worth of land and money to the project and hired architect Norman Patton to design the building at Lake Street and Grove Avenue. The three-story Romanesque Revival building was completed in 1888 and included a library, third-floor gymnasium and spaces for community meetings and lectures.
While the building was popular with the village — by 1890 more than 1,000 library cards had been issued in a town with a population of 4,500 — Scoville’s endowment proved insufficient to support the building and services. By 1891, the Institute was facing a deficit, and by 1903, Oak Park voters had approved a referendum for a tax to support the public library.
Due to health concerns, James and Mary Scoville eventually moved to Pasadena, California, leaving the day-to-day management of their Oak Park properties to their son, Charles.
Their grand mansion on the hill was used as finishing school for girls and as a temporary home for the Oak Park Club, and Charles leased the land around it to real estate firm Dunlop & Co., which proposed constructing an office building and hotel on the site around 1910.
Villagers, including local homeowner Anson Hemingway, wanted the area to remain green space and become a dedicated park. In 1912, voters approved the creation of the park district, and Charles Scoville reconsidered his development plans.
He sold both the Scoville place and the old cricket grounds now known as Ridgeland Common to the park district for $135,637. The grand mansion on the hill was razed by the park district.
The Scoville Institute remained a community cultural institution until 1962, when it was demolished to make way for the new library, which itself was replaced by a newer model in 2003.
The Scoville family was responsible for much of the development of the commercial corridor near the intersection of Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street that still exists today. The building at 115 N. Oak Park Ave., the Cicero Gas Co. Building, was built in 1893, and the building at 116-136 N. Oak Park Ave. was built in 1899. Architect Patton had a hand in both designs.
In 1907, Charles Scoville hired E.E. Roberts to design the Scoville Square Building at 129-151 N. Oak Park Ave., once home to a Masonic Lodge and later home to Gilmore’s Department Store. When Gilmore’s closed in 1976, the store was still leasing the space from a Scoville descendant.
Charles Scoville also developed the Medical Arts Building at 715 Lake St. In a controversy that echoes development discussions today, his original construction permit for the building was denied because it exceeded local height restrictions by 29 feet. Scoville persuaded local officials that the height was necessary to house mechanical systems and to allow for first-floor retail space and won approval for construction.
For Lipo, the Scovilles’ long-term relationship with the village is striking.
“Those three commercial corners were all owned and built by Scovilles for around 80 years,” Lipo said. “The family had an interest here from the 1860s all the way through the 1960s. You could make a case for calling the town Scoville Corners.”