Please add my name to those Oak Parkers strongly opposed to demolishing Oak Park’s beautiful landmark village hall. I grew up in Oak Park in the ’80s and ’90s and, after some years in New York and Lakeview, I live here today. Part of growing up here meant, for me anyway, learning to see fine architecture as fine art. And you don’t destroy a work of fine art unless you absolutely must.
I admit that I have visited village hall on only a few occasions. When I have, however, I have been inspired by the warm, gracious space as well as the striking exterior, all bearing the marks of uncommon artistic design. Last time I visited, I believe that you, Ms. Scaman — forgive me if I’m wrong — were called from your office (before ascending to your current role) to help me in the mundane task, certainly below your pay grade, of confirming my voter registration, which you did very nicely. It was such a pleasant experience. I remember thinking that village hall says “Oak Park” as few institutional structures could.
Modernist architecture is not everyone’s cup of tea, and so it has a disadvantage in the preservation game. Partly inspired by the forward-thinking design aesthetic of our own Frank Lloyd Wright and others, however, I have come to see elegant, thoughtful modernist buildings as every bit as worthy of protection as older, possibly more crowd-pleasing structures.
I was a little kid when Oak Park tore down its last headquarters, at Lake and Euclid. Although not nearly as distinguished as the current building, I remember mourning the passing of a friend. You could take home bricks as souvenirs, I seem to recall. Although that building was replaced by a better one — albeit not at the same site, sadly — we can hardly expect the same today. Witness the proliferation of cookie-cutter apartment structures in the village that merely nod in the direction of faddish style. I don’t hate all the new buildings (though that eyesore at South Boulevard and Harlem is pretty awful), but they certainly lack the artist’s touch.
I won’t try to sell you on the elevating effects of civilized civic architecture. Well, maybe I will, a little. Harry Weese, the “artist” I keep talking about, designed Washington’s Metro, as you know. His designs were expensive, but they were, while modern, gorgeous and grand. They bespoke an egalitarian ethos.
Such beauty need not be the luxury of the rich but the property of the public too. It’s bad enough when private companies, scrounging for the last buck or two in a failing enterprise, destroy people’s palaces — as happened famously in New York with the Pennsylvania Station and would have happened to Grand Central, too, had it not been for the timely passage of a preservation law. When governments fall down on the job, it’s particularly galling.
I have read reports that Oak Park Village Hall has various problems and that the basement police station is lousy. OK, so fix it. Renovate, sensitively. Add on, sensitively. Build a new police station. It’d be great to acquire and build on the land on either side of village hall, now occupied by a gas station and a McDonald’s.
I’m confident there are many options that don’t require tearing down Oak Park’s own singular monument to its people.
Jake Hildner grew up in Oak Park and is now living here again.