To make good decisions about any changes to Oak Park Village Hall, it is incumbent to look at the history of how it all came about. You need to know about the temper of the times and the really important work that village leaders did at the time.
Much of this is covered in detail by the very excellent work that local architect Frank Heitzman did in 2014, in the successful application to place the building on the National Register of Historic Places. Frank also provides a detailed description of the building and tells of its architectural significance.
Frank’s essay is simply mandatory reading. It is available at: https://npgallery.nps.gov/GetAsset/d028b62b-9f64-4018-8f46-851955540cca
I was working at Harry Weese and Associates at the time that Harry was selected as architect. I was lucky to be assigned the job of project manager, and as such I was responsible for the administration of the work in the office and for all contact with the client. My place was a good spot to observe the charge given to the architect and to observe the decision-making process by the architect.
Several questions have come up about that process and how the building came to be. Below are my best recollections:
What direct and implied instructions were given to us as architects?
• Create a distinctive building that will be a proud symbol for the village. The fact that the village acquired and cleared an entire block indicated the importance of the project. The fact that the village retained an architect who was known for his skills in producing high-quality architecture indicated that that is what the village wanted.
• The building was to emphasize the idea of open government. This was high priority.
• Provide a friendly, pleasant working environment.
• We were aware, as Frank also points out, that of all the interaction that the ordinary citizen has with national, state, county and city government, municipal offices are the point where citizens come closest to their government. The place of this interaction was to be friendly and inviting to the general public.
• We were given a clear and comprehensive list of needs to be met in the building. Broadly, that included village offices, a council chamber and the police department. Parking for staff and visitors and protected parking for some police vehicles was also clearly described.
How important a role did Harry Weese play in the design?
Harry was involved on a day-to-day basis from the start through the completion of the construction drawings and beyond. He was most definitely the designer and architect of the building. Bill Bauhs was among the best project designers in the office for understanding Harry’s directions and sometimes even anticipating him. I feel it was no accident that Bill was selected for this project.
Why is the building located as it is?
The first and immediate idea was that the building would not be set back from Madison Street with a parking lot in front. That would make the building look like any strip shopping center and diminish the importance of what was to be the major civic structure of the village. But the side of the building along Madison Street would not be a blank wall. Rather, there would be an inviting approach to the building. A nice entrance would be provided even if the door was seldom used. The form of the Council Chamber was given a distinctive shape and placed prominently on Madison Street so that people going by would know that something special was on this site. There was never any consideration for another arrangement on the site, never any decision to flip the plan.
Why the form of the building?
I recall Harry proposing and project designer Bill Bauhs sketching several basic forms for the building. Nothing seemed to fit right until Harry suggested looking at the plan of the Town Hall at Säynätsalo, Finland, by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. The building was constructed in 1952. Harry knew Aalto and may have discussed the Town Hall with him. By chance, I had visited the tiny village in 1967 and spent time studying the building. The form of the building was a square, open ring around a courtyard. It was a delightful building, light and airy. The Town Hall provided village offices, a council chamber and the village library. There was also a small commercial space that could be taken over for future needs.
What is the purpose of the courtyard?
• Like the courtyard of the Town Hall in Säynätsalo, an interior courtyard gives a building a more open feeling and provides sunlight to the interior spaces. At the Town Hall, the views in all directions are pretty nice. In busy, urban Oak Park, the courtyard provides a tranquil outlook in contrast to the traffic and noise on the surrounding streets.
• It did not occur to me at the time, but the courtyard makes another important contribution. The actual footprint of the village hall is relatively small, representing only about 15% of site coverage. Having the open courtyard makes the building appear larger, and gives it greater bulk and prestige.
Why was a heavy timber structural system chosen?
This was an esthetic decision and a very good one. By the nature of an open building (open government), a visitor would see lots of columns and beams. It was so much better to choose these to be warm wood, rather than some cold material like steel.
Why was the Police Department placed in the basement?
• Shortly after we began work, I received a phone call from the Oak Park Police Chief asking me to take an important trip with him. Bill Bauhs and I went with the chief in his squad car to Highland Park (or perhaps another northern suburb) to visit the police department there. The building was above ground with lots of glass windows and appeared to give a friendly impression. Back in the car, the chief said he felt the building was totally wrong. He wanted a “fortress” with absolutely no windows. I checked with Manager Lee Ellis and he said to give the chief whatever he wanted. Perhaps I should have argued at the time that a visitor-friendly building and a nicer working environment should be considered, but, alas, I did not.
What was the intended purpose of the green area at the south end of the block?
It was clear early on the entire block would not be required to fill the present project needs. It was decided to landscape with only a lawn and to hold the space for future village needs. This decision was memorialized on the project site plan. As can be seen on page 35 of the nomination form for the National Register, a possible building is dotted in with the notation; “Future building – 4,000 square foot” (that is, 4,000 sq. ft. per floor).
One thing that struck me on my visit to Säynätsalo was the care that was taken with the Town Hall. The condition of the building inside and out, including the landscaping, was impeccable. This was true of most municipal buildings in Europe.
Why can’t we Americans take better care of our important buildings? It seems that unless it is a government monument in Washington, or a beloved historic building like Monticello or the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio, there never is enough interest and enough money.
I have heard many complaints about problems in village hall today. But I have heard from almost as many people talking about what a joy it was and is to work in this marvelous building.
Bill Dring, a longtime resident of Oak Park, now lives in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.