The state of 925 Chicago Ave., the 1888 Italianate home purchased by the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust for $340,000 in 2017, has been a source of interest since the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission turned down the Trust’s request to demolish the house to make way for a new visitor center in 2019.
In a recent Substack story, Rachel Freundt, writing for Architecture and History of Chicagoland, posited that the Trust was “practicing demolition by neglect” by failing to maintain the home.
The article pointed to the home’s lack of heat, peeling paint, worn roof and clogged gutters as signs of neglect, and Freundt suggested that the Trust might be allowing the home to deteriorate in order to make its demolition necessary.
But, Frank Lloyd Trust CEO and President Celeste Adams says such claims are unfounded and that the organization listened to preservationists and Home and Studio neighbors who spoke out against the plan for a new 20,000-square-foot visitor center fronting Chicago Avenue. She also pointed out a letter to Home & Studio neighbors dated March 2, 2020, in which the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust confirmed its intention to save and refurbish the home.
Noel Weidner, chairman of the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission, reiterated the stance of the advisory group in 2019, saying the demolition of the house goes against Oak Park’s historic district guidelines and ordinances.
He said the importance of 925 Chicago Ave. is in the context of the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District and immediate area, which helps visitors experience firsthand the “bold departure that Frank Lloyd Wright achieved with the Prairie Style.”
While Weidner said he recognizes that demolition by neglect is an issue in most cities, he said via email that it is “up to the local government to enforce good stewardship and maintenance so that a property doesn’t get to a point of no return.”
Adams acknowledges there are maintenance issues with the home.
“We are keenly aware of what the priorities are,” Adams said. “Our priorities as stated in 2020 have not changed. It will take time to do this thoughtfully.”
Adams says outside forces impacted the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust’s maintenance of the home, including the pandemic and the profound effect it has had on tourism. That created financial hardship for the Trust, which has made maintenance and restoration of the house at 925 Chicago Ave. difficult.
At this time, Adams says the Trust is prioritizing repairs.
“We are extremely aware of its exterior appearance, and we understand the concerns,” she said.
In September 2021, the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust received an estimate for the first phase of work on exterior stabilization and refurbishment, which would include a new wood shingle roof, historically appropriate replacement windows, a reconstructed front porch and front walkway.
Once funding is obtained and the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission has approved the work, Adams says that work will begin. She said the Trust’s architect, Karen Sweeney, as well as Arthur Vogt and Michael Fus, who are architects on the Trust’s board, will lead and oversee the project. When the project commences, engineers will join the team.
Adams says interior work will be a second phase of the project and that the Trust is not yet ready to announce what they plan to do with the space but will do so in the future.
In response to the criticism of the maintenance of the home, Adam states that the house is structurally sound, well-sealed and supervised by the Trust’s team of architects and facilities staff.
Local architect and former Historic Preservation Commission Chairman Frank Heitzman, says that even with a pandemic, the deferred maintenance on the home is not acceptable, noting that the village would cite a private homeowner for the maintenance issues that exist at 925 Chicago Ave.
Heitzman was opposed to the demolition of the house for the proposed visitor center and wanted to see 925 Chicago Ave. preserved as part of the historic streetscape. He is eager to see what the Trust plans for the home, and says his first choice would be to see the large lot subdivided, with the home sold to an interested party who would want to maintain and restore it.
“Someone could live there, and the visitors’ center could be built behind it,” Heitzman said.
Paul Harding, an architect and owner of a Wright-designed home in River Forest, proposed just such a plan in 2019 as part of his opposition to seeing 925 Chicago Ave. demolished. His architecture firm has worked on the restoration of several Wright-designed homes including his own, and Harding says that the context of historic houses is important.
“You can see the beautiful, rich environment that’s a part of the story,” Harding said.
He proposed leaving the house where it stands and building a new visitor’s center behind it, saying that such a design would provide an interplay with the old and new without the new competing with the original, historic streetscape.
If a plan like Harding’s is not feasible financially, Heitzman’s second suggestion is to “mothball” the house, a process he says that would entail stabilizing the house with paint and exterior repairs, and moderate interior heat to protect interior finishes. Once in this state, the home could survive without further damage until plans are made for it in the future.
Both Heitzman and Harding advocate for maintenance that they say is necessary to preserve 925 Chicago Ave.
“There are well-established, national historic preservation standards,” Harding said. “They should follow those, just like the rest of us do. Why should they get a pass?”