On May 23, the Nineteenth Century Charitable Association erected an interpretive sign in front of its historic Forest Avenue headquarters. The Oak Park landmark, with its signature white columns and red brick, has stood in the center of the downtown since 1891, but members realized that not everyone knew what the association’s purpose is.
The sign explains the history of the building, designed by architect James L. Fyfe and the mission of the association: strengthening community through learning, giving and sharing their landmark building.
The association was established in 1891 by a group of women who believed that education, charitable activities and civic involvement were vital elements in a thriving community. Today, the association continues that mission through grants, scholarships and public programming.
Frank Lipo, executive director of the Oak Park River Forest Historical Society, says the Nineteenth Century Club’s new sign is just one of many markers in the area that shares a story about important buildings, people or events with a local connection.
He points to the marker in Scoville Park, which includes a photo of the Scoville family house that once stood on the site. He calls this “a kind of public marker put up by a public entity like the park district.”
Another recently erected marker is one a few blocks north of the Nineteenth Century Club at 414 Forest Ave. that tells of the efforts of Grace Wilbur Trout. Put in place in August 2021, this marker was part of an initiative by the William C. Pomeroy Foundation, which wanted to honor the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage with markers in each state.
Working with local historical societies, the League of Women Voters and organizations like the Nineteenth Century Charitable Association, the Pomeroy Foundation erected 250 markers nationwide on its National Votes for Women Trail.
Trout was president of the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association from 1912 to 1920. Lipo says she was “arguably the leader of the state’s movement and systematically organized the whole effort.”
He notes that the marker stands on the location of Trout’s Oak Park residence from 1900 to the teens. Her home was later torn down and replaced by the house that still stands on the site
National organizations, local entities and private citizens can be the impetus behind markers and signs, and Lipo says there can be a common misconception that all historical markers come from a single source.
In fact, he says, “It’s a very grassroots effort. There’s often a combination of private ownership of property and the common good of marking a property.”
He points out that when people wanted to mark the Oak Park home where Betty White lived for a time as an infant, it engendered some questions. A few people wondered why there should be a marker for a home where someone famous only lived for a few months early in life.
“There’s an ongoing debate,” Lipo said. “How long do you have to live in a place before it’s historic?”
He says that by the very definition of the word, being born in a place makes you a native, which is reason enough to commemorate a home.
“There are no hard rules,” he said. “This is public history. It’s not just the history that’s taught in the classroom, but civic history, too.”
In Oak Park and River Forest, homes designated local landmarks by the local historic preservation commissions also are recognized with historical markers. These markers denote the historical significance of the home, the architect and the year it was built. As designated landmarks, these homes are afforded more protection from demolition, and the sign can be an outward marker of that protection.
The Oak Park River Forest Historical Society set up its own historical plaque program almost 20 years ago. Information on the program is available at oprfmuseum.org/historic-plaque-program.
Homeowners interested in obtaining a plaque can research their house at the Historical Society or pay the Historical Society $25 per hour to do the research. Plaques include the date the home was built, the name of the original owner and the architect’s name if available.
Plaques are available for homes and buildings that are least 50 years old, in good repair and that retain most of their historic character as determined by a visual inspection conducted by the museum’s plaque committee.
Lipo states that whatever the type of marker, it is important to be accurate with the dates and facts included on signs. He thinks the Oak Park and River Forest communities are great locales for more markers due to the rich architectural and cultural histories of the towns.
He says that signs are a common good.
“They are a good way to learn,” Lipo said. “You see them in your daily patterns as you walk around town. Locals can learn more about their community. Signage has a tourism aspect to it too.”