The Nineteenth Century Club at 178 Forest Ave. stands in the center of Oak Park and has long been a home for programs and events that serve the village and its neighbors. Designed by architect James L. Fyfe in 1928, the red brick building with its distinctive white columns stands in a prominent spot in the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District across from Austin Gardens.
Like the historic homes surrounding it, the building is not immune to the tests of time. Allen Parchem, president of the board of directors for the Nineteenth Century Club, says the building has more in common with older homes than you might think.
“Anyone with an old home knows that one thing leads to another when it comes to home repair,” he said.
Likening a building maintenance project to pulling a thread from a sweater, he notes that the more your pull, the more the fabric begins to unravel.
The club has been active in recent years updating the building, taking on projects such as tuck-pointing, roof repairs and making the ballroom more acoustically pleasant for hosting events.
Its most recent project may be its most visible though. If you walked by the club recently, it would have been hard to miss the iconic 19-foot tall columns suspended in the air.
Originally, Parchem says the board brought in an engineer to address the deteriorating concrete around the base of the columns. The engineer noticed that a piece of a column was loose. When he pulled it out and looked inside, it was apparent the problem was much larger than some aging concrete.
Inside the white column sheaths, the inner support posts are roughly 8-by-8-inch wooden posts that run the length and support the weighty portico above. With access to the inside of a column, the engineer discovered the inner support post was rotting.
He examined another column, and it too had a rotting inner support. The board hired someone to fish a camera into the remaining columns, and all of the interior posts were also showing signs of damage. What began as a simple concrete job turned into quite a bit more.
“We knew we needed to hire an architect. The name Frank Heitzman kept popping up, so we brought him on,” Parchem said.
As with all old house issues, the solution is never as simple as the owners might hope. Heitzman devised a system with a metal foot at the base of the support post. The foot will be galvanized, so it will be less vulnerable to water damage.
In addition, Parchem states Heitzman had to rethink the traditional column design.
“As they were, there was no air circulating, so if water got in there, it was prone to mold,” Parchem said.
Heitzman created a column design with vents that would allow air to circulate, without changing the outer appearance of the columns to such a degree that they would no longer resemble the original historic columns,
With design in hand, the board had to find a company that was well-equipped to do historic restoration on a large scale. After looking over the five bids they received, Parchem says that choosing Berglund Construction made the most sense. The company was familiar with Oak Park historic structures, having worked on Unity Temple, so they seemed a good match for the project.
An important part of the job was stabilizing the columns as the originals were removed and the new ones installed. The work began on Oct. 4 and is expected to last two months. Today, the supports appear partly suspended in air.
“It looks surreal now,” Parchem said. “There are the big posts, and at the bottom, they’re not connecting to anything. It’s like looking at a Salvador Dali.”
The project is paid for in part by the proceeds of the Nineteenth Century Club’s spring gala, and Parchem says the club will cover the rest of the fees.
He said that being in charge of recent renovations to the building has emphasized the need to do repairs properly.
“Another thing that’s clear if you have an old house, is that different owners have different amounts to spend on upgrades,” Parchem said. “We could see from some of the older repairs that the club probably didn’t have much money when that was done. That’s OK. They did what they could. We want to do it right now.”
Stabilizing and updating the building is an important part of keeping the cultural center of the village available for generations to come.
“If you talk to people in their 60s and70s, they have a lot of memories of this building from learning to dance there in ballroom dance classes to learning to swim when the building housed Oak Park’s first pool,” Parchem said.
Parchem says he’s proud of his group, which has updated and restored the building with private donations to keep the doors open for the next century of use.