Editor’s Note: The following article was updated to reflect statements from the Park District of Oak Park’s Executive Director, Jan Arnold.
The Park District of Oak Park continues to face backlash over its removal of much of the original flooring at its Pleasant Home mansion. Landmarks Illinois has issued a formal letter to the park district, criticizing the taxing body for its “inexcusable treatment” of the historic mansion and its failure to inform the Pleasant Home Foundation of its plans.
“This is not the level of stewardship or of communication that we would hope to see from an entity like the Oak Park park district,” said Kendra Parzen, Landmarks Illinois advocacy manager, in a letter addressed to Jan Arnold, the park district’s executive director.
A statewide historic preservation nonprofit, Landmarks Illinois typically looks to community advocates and organizations to serve as watchdogs of local historic structures. In the case of Pleasant Home, however, Landmarks Illinois now has its eye on the park district.
“This warrants a slightly heightened level of attention going forward,” Parzen told Wednesday Journal.
Landmarks Illinois has called on the park district to be better stewards of Pleasant Home, a National Historic Landmark, by voluntarily seeking protection of the mansion’s interior through the Village of Oak Park’s preservation commission. Doing so would necessitate the park district going through the village’s Historic Preservation Committee before making major changes to the home’s interior, as well as its exterior. This is something that the park district has not yet discussed doing, according to PDOP Executive Director Jan Arnold.
Additionally, Landmarks Illinois has requested that the park district make a better effort to engage local experts and the Pleasant Home Foundation, a non-profit entity independent of PDOP that is dedicated to the home’s preservation. Landmarks Illinois has supported the foundation’s work in the past, awarding it preservation grants in 2007 and 2016.
Pleasant Home, completed in 1897 and designed by George W. Maher, is a prime example of early Prairie style architecture, most frequently associated with Maher’s contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright. The park district assumed ownership of the home decades ago, making it a public property available for tours and event rentals. Tours, like preservation, fall under the foundation’s umbrella.
The partnership between PDOP and the foundation was fractured over Easter weekend, when the park district authorized the removal of original oak flooring on the first floor of Pleasant Home – without notifying the foundation and against its wishes. The antique floorboards were discarded in dumpsters. The park district informed the foundation on March 8 that the floors would merely be repaired and resurfaced. The foundation was blindsided by the removal.
“Please know that we truly hoped the floor would live on for a few more years with some basic repairs but due to the unfavorable condition that was just not possible,” Arnold told Wednesday Journal. “The decision to replace a section of the flooring was not one made without careful consideration or haste towards the home.”
The park district has since apologized for not informing the foundation, but it maintains the original floors were unsafe. The foundation maintains the floors could have easily been repaired, both preserving the home’s historic integrity and saving taxpayer dollars. The floor replacement cost $77,680.
Landmarks Illinois has taken the foundation’s side in its evaluation of the original flooring. In the letter to the park district, Parzen referenced a 2002 historic structure report conducted of Pleasant Home which estimated that the flooring had a remaining life of 50 years. The report, according to Parzen, recommended refinishing the floors. Wednesday Journal has requested a copy of the report.
“The replacement of the flooring in 2023 is well in advance of the expected end of its lifespan,” Parzen wrote in the letter to the park district.
The park district is further criticized in the Landmarks Illinois letter for not yet demonstrating that repairing and refinishing the original floors was not possible. No studies, analyses or reports regarding the floors’ condition have been released by the park district. Replacing the floors, the letter says, was “both environmentally and economically wasteful.”
“We need more evidence and assurance of why this action was taken,” Parzen told Wednesday Journal.
In the weeks since the floors were removed, the park district and the foundation have resumed working together. Arnold said the park district connected with the chair of the foundation’s restoration committee to review and recommend stains to ensure consistency across the home. The park district also referred to the historic structure report, using quarter-sawn white oak floorboards to uphold the home’s “primary aesthetics” and was able to retain and reinstall the original trim and base.
“We fully intend to continue collaborating with the Restoration Committee to ensure we continue to properly care for and maintain this historic property,” said Arnold.