With recent news that the Park District of Oak Park plans to demolish a mid-century modern office building at 228-230 Madison St. to make way for a parking lot, local preservationists have made the case that such buildings are worth preserving for multiple reasons.
Known as the Drifts Oak Building, the two-story building was designed in 1963 by architect Robert Taylor. The park district purchased the building in 2019 for $477,560 and, until recently, it was used rent-free by Yemba Inc. and West Suburban Special Recreation Association.
Park District Executive Director Jan Arnold says the building has problems that include its heating and cooling system, rain penetration, basement flooding and standing water, electrical and plumbing issues and asbestos in the roof, floor and ceiling tiles.
On Aug. 19, the park district awarded a contract for demolition of the building at an estimated cost of $143,000.
Arnold states that in its place, the park district will maintain a gravel parking lot, increasing parking from four spaces to 20. She says that some of those 20 park district vehicles are currently parked on the future site of the Community Recreation Center across the street. Once the Community Recreation Center is constructed, the lot will also serve as overflow parking for users of that facility.
Frank Heitzman, an Oak Park architect and past chairman of the village’s Historic Preservation Commission and the Pleasant Home Foundation as well as past-president of the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, laments the loss of the building.
He says that tearing down the building is questionable from a historic preservation standpoint and also from an energy-use perspective.
Best use and green energy claims
Oak Parker Mike Iverson, an architect, urban planner, urban ecologist and adjunct professor in University of Illinois at Chicago’s Department of Urban Planning and Policy, who has an expertise in urbanized ecosystems,” Iverson said, adding the demolition raises many questions.
“Is this the highest and best use of that lot? Of course not,” Iverson said of its conversion to a parking lot. “Specifically, the economics by themselves from a taxpayer point of view make no sense.”
Christopher Payne, an Oak Park-based architect and former Historic Preservation Commission chairman, agrees with the economic argument. He points out that when parking spaces in a covered structure routinely sell in the $10,000 to $25,000 range, paying this much for a surface parking lot that is on a prime corner location is not the best use of funds.
“I hate to always criticize taxing bodies for peeling properties off the tax rolls, but to do that for parking, is that really the best use?” Payne asked.
More importantly, Iverson says the park district, which claims its new Community Recreation Center will be a net-zero building, is failing to consider the environmental cost of demolishing an existing building.
“When you tear down any building, there is an inherent embodied energy component,” Iverson said.
He would like the park district to define its net-zero claim, saying “Is it net-zero emissions or net-zero energy? Do you include the energy cost of tearing down buildings or the transportation used by people to get to the CRC? The net-zero claim is very nebulous.”
Iverson calls on the park district and the village to define and substantiate claims of energy efficiency when they are using taxpayer provided money.
“The term net zero has no meaning whatsoever here, and this has been a theme in the village,” Iverson said.
Heitzman called the use of the term net zero, “green washing.”
Both Heitzman and Iverson concede it is too late to save the Madison Street building, but say the issues raised are important to keep alive.
“What is the historic significance of mid-century buildings?” Heitzman asked. “Are we going to tear them down because they need a new roof? Here, it’s too little too late, but let’s have a community discussion about the future.”
Payne says it’s time to recognize the importance of contemporary buildings in the architectural heritage of Oak Park.
Mid-century modern buildings like the Drifts Oak building represent an important era, Payne said, noting that the village has already recognized other mid-century buildings as landmarks. The commercial building 1515 N. Harlem Ave., which he describes as having a dramatic UFO-like appendage is landmarked, as is a home at 1010 Fair Oaks Ave.
Mid-century modern style he says is often characterized by the use of natural materials like heavy timber or oversized stone. Payne says it has commonalities with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian homes, in that both styles relied on employing mass-produced materials in both naturalistic and futuristic ways.
For Payne, existing mid-century buildings are worth saving, because they are still useful and because they are representative of a particular era in architecture. He points out that while some might deem these buildings too contemporary for historic preservation, people could have said the same about Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home and Studio at the time it was preserved.
He also notes that many notable mid-century buildings, such as office buildings on North Avenue and the multi-unit residential building at 7 Division St., are good examples of mid-century designs that are on the borders of the village and serve as an entry point for visitors and residents alike.
While historic preservation discussions can be unpopular, Payne says it’s important for the village to champion preservation, noting that it should be a boon to the village to have thoughtfully preserved, unique architecture.
The Drifts Oak building was included in Landmarks Illinois’ Recent Past Survey of Suburban Cook County in 2011 and was cited in the village-commissioned Madison Street Corridor Architectural Survey by Wiss, Janney, Elstner in 2006 as an example of one of the “notable modern buildings.”
Payne thinks the village would do well to value the findings of the reports it commissions.
“It’s ironic that the village has never wrapped its head around how valuable preservation can be,” he said.
Payne also wonders if there could be an embrace of ideas such as identifying other at-risk buildings, and perhaps holding taxing bodies to higher standards when it comes to permitting demolitions.
“It’s particularly distressing when it’s the village, or the library or the park district – some place where my tax dollars are going — that’s doing the demolishing,” Payne said. “It’s one thing if it’s a bad developer, another if it’s part of our public policy as a community.”
Payne notes that Landmarks Illinois has recently expressed interest in mid-century modern designs, and he thinks that preservation of these buildings can be a part of a larger conversation on historic preservation that would benefit the village.
While it may be too late for the Madison Street building — Arnold says demolition is slated for Oct. 1 — Payne is hopeful that a new village board and a newly revitalized Historic Preservation Commission, as well as an interested and knowledgeable population, might push the envelope towards embracing a preservation-guided mindset.