One of Oak Park’s most notable homes is getting an upgrade — one that involves a bit more than a coat of new paint. People passing by Pleasant Home at the corner of Pleasant Street and Home Avenue in the past few weeks might have noticed some large equipment in Mills Park behind the house.
A much-needed upgrade to the home’s climate control has Pleasant Home going green with a new geothermal heating and cooling system.
Pleasant Home, 217 Home Ave., is owned and operated by the Park District of Oak Park and Chris Lindgren, superintendent of parks and planning says that the new system has been a long time coming. A 2002 historic structural support survey identified upgrading the heating and adding air conditioning to the 1897-designed house as a way to make the home more enjoyable while protecting the historical elements and finishes.
Geothermal systems work by moving temperature-conducting fluid through an underground system of pipes. The fluid uses the thermal energy of the sun deposited in the earth to heat and cool a home, as temperatures deeper in the earth are a steady 55 degrees Fahrenheit all year. A system of more traditional-style ductwork in the home distributes the heated or cooled air.
In recent weeks, workers with AMS Mechanical have been installing 12 wells in Mills Park — each roughly 500 feet deep. Lindgren says these geothermal wells should last about 80 to 100 years. The equipment inside the house has a lifespan of 15 to 20 years, akin to that of a more traditional HVAC system.
Design engineer Mark Nussbaum of Architectural Consulting Engineers helped design an interior system to minimize impact on the historic home. Lindgren notes that Nussbaum is an Oak Parker with a professional history of working on historic buildings, including the recent upgrade of Unity Temple.
While the plan is for the exterior work to wrap up before winter weather impedes construction, Lindgren says the entire project should be completed by early April.
“It’s exciting marrying this great technology with a historic landmark,” Lindgren said.
Comfort and preservation are key
Lindgren says the new geothermal system will allow greater use of the house, which for years also housed the Oak Park River Forest History Museum before that entity moved into a new home in 2017.
“The park district recently took over programming of the facility, and we were really limited with what we could do in the summer months,” Lindgren said. “With the Cheney Mansion in Oak Park, we are able to share and offer programming for adults that was lacking in the community. We wanted to bring that to Pleasant Home.”
Lindgren adds that maintaining large, historic homes is expensive and notes that hosting events and weddings generates much-needed revenue.
“Historic homes are so expensive to maintain,” he said. “These activities help us generate money to put money back into the homes so they last. The Pleasant Home is a National Historic Landmark, so we can’t just do what’s easiest and cheapest for maintenance.”
Kevin Brown, director of programming and marketing for Pleasant Home says controlling the climate inside the building, especially during the summer, should boost attendance for programs.
“This will definitely affect attendance in a positive way,” Brown said. “During the warmer months, there were plenty of people who probably did not take advantage of all that we have to offer because of the lack of air conditioning.”
Brown says that the better temperature and humidity control will help with preservation of all of the house’s finishes. Woodwork, plaster and paint can deteriorate in high humidity, and the home has many painted murals.
“The house came with an important collection of original furnishings that will be better protected,” he said.
Beyond furniture, Brown says that Pleasant Home displays many items manufactured by Mills Novelty Company, owned by the second family to live in the house. The Violano Virtuoso, a rare and intricate player piano-violin music machine manufactured by the company, for example, will benefit from better temperature control.
Lindgren says a big driver in choosing a geothermal system was the environmental impact of the system, since “all of our decisions are made through a sustainability lens.”
It won’t be the first geothermal system employed by the park district. There are similar systems in place for Austin Gardens’ Environmental Education Center and the Carroll Center in Carroll Park.
When the state of Illinois came up with a grant to help offset costs, Lindgren says the move became more affordable. Of the $695,000 contract awarded for the project, he says that the grant covers $421,500.
According to Lindgren, energy calculations show that with the geothermal system in place, costs to heat and cool the house year-round will be lower than what is currently spent on heating alone. The new system will be upwards of 50 percent more efficient than the current system.
Brown says the environmental factor is going to be helpful.
“To be able to heat and cool the house for less than it used to cost just to heat the house is pretty cool,” Brown said. “The fact that we get all of the benefits to the house and the collections, and it’s a lot greener, makes this a great upgrade.”