The prospect of the village of Oak Park tearing down its village hall to build a new one, complete with better police facilities, in its place has elicited quite the reaction from the public. Architecture aficionados and historic preservationists are reeling, as the Harry Weese-designed building, has a place on the National Register of Historic Places. Some are concerned by the project’s estimated cost of between $118 million and $124 million. And many others are still scratching their heads over the idea, which seemingly came out of nowhere upon being presented to the village board July 7.
While it is a prime source of local debate, Wednesday Journal reached out to a group not yet heard from — former staffers who worked in the building at Madison Street and Lombard.
Their opinion on the current state of village hall and the potential for its demolition is shaped by their experience working there, giving them a unique point of view. The Journal interviewed three of the village’s past leaders – a village manager, a police chief and a department director – to gauge their reactions to the idea, which, it turns out, shocked more than just residents.
“I was having dinner with a buddy of mine who still lives in Oak Park and he was telling me about it, which took me by surprise,” said Tony Ambrose, former Oak Park police chief.
Ambrose, who said his friend was likewise surprised, spent 34 years working in the basement of village hall, which the police department occupies. The police station’s facilities were outdated in 1984, when he joined the force, and even more outdated by the time he retired in 2018, Ambrose said. It lacks space and windows, has a non-operational shooting range, inadequate locker rooms, limited evidence storage and not enough room for training. The department’s one window – a skylight – is located inside a storage closet.
“I spent half of my life in the police department and it’s a great department with quality people. It’s just the facility doesn’t fulfill the needs of policing,” Ambrose said.
The idea currently being discussed was born from conversations and assessments regarding much needed new police facilities, and whether to renovate the current space or build anew elsewhere. Those discussions have spanned five years, with studies revisited and updated, and the rest of the building with chronic issues, according to the village’s hired engineering firm. This all culminated earlier this month with the board’s bombshell decision to explore building an entirely new village hall.
Ambrose isn’t sure if he thinks a brand-new village hall is the right answer, but he said renovating the basement police station is putting a Band-Aid on a wound in need of stitches. It helps in the immediate but isn’t a long-term solution. The only way he believes the police station can continue operating in the current village hall is to expand the department’s space into the upper levels of village hall, which he called a “beautiful facility.” He knows this is not a viable option, however, as it encroaches upon space used by other village staff departments – and he doesn’t think those employees probably have enough room themselves.
Still, his main concern is with the police station, sharing that he believes it’s a testament to the quality of the department’s officers that they’re able to work at all out of that facility when a state-of-the-art station is in order.
Tom Barwin, a former village manager who resigned in 2012, told Wednesday Journal he loved working out of Oak Park’s village hall, calling it a “statement structure” of quality architecture. The commitment to transparency and openness in government, the principle that guided the building’s design, gives village hall “a warm and family type of feel,” according to Barwin.
Village hall though is not without its faults. He remembers space heaters being used in the winter to warm different wings, as the building’s U-shape makes its heating and cooling system inefficient. Space too was an issue, he recalls. The workspaces and offices in village hall were much smaller than those of other municipalities where he’s worked, he said, and he concedes the police station is insufficient.
That doesn’t mean he hopes a wrecking ball is unleashed on the building.
“I hope village hall can stay and quality accommodations for the police department can be figured out,” Barwin said.
Loretta Daly, former business services manager, feels torn. She worked in economic development, rather than building services or historic preservation. Yet she appreciated the building’s architecture because it created an atmosphere in which she loved working – especially in times of inclement weather.
“It’s the best place to be in the middle of a really hard downpour,” said Daly, who left five years ago after almost two decades of service.
The raindrops hitting the metal roof creates a pleasurable cacophony of noise, while the pitched roof causes water to slide off the building in great sheets, able to be viewed through the floor-to-ceiling windows of village hall’s upper levels. These are very fond memories of Daly’s, even though the ceiling leaks when it rains.
Having grown up in Oak Park before working for the village, Daly remembers when the structure was built. She was in high school at the time. The construction of village hall was something the entire community paid attention to, she said, and how its design really mirrored the concept of open government.
“The design of the building, albeit flawed, is really a tremendous benefit to the community,” she said.
In her 17 years working at the village, she continued to admire the openness, but found it not always suitable for privacy, particularly when citizens would come in to conduct personal business. The noise from the police station can be heard upstairs, including “rather filthy” language from people taken into custody, and she agrees the department is underserved in the building. The building’s faults, however, do not outweigh its more positive qualities, in Daly’s eyes.
Daly would support demolishing the building if it comes down to it, she said, despite its architectural significance, which she admits is not her area of expertise. She’d like to see that same philosophy of open government applied to a potential new village hall.
“To me, it was much more about how the design created a feeling,” Daly said. “And I think that can be replicated.”