The case for preserving the Hill Motor showroom

Opinion: Columns

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By Richard Katz

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In 1987, The National Trust for Historic Preservation published one of its seminal works, The Buildings of Main Street, paying tribute to Main Street America's rich architectural history of wonderful commercial structures to be found in towns and cities all across the urban landscapes of the country. 

When published, the book was the first to classify these structures, not on the usual basis of style, but rather as parts of a common vocabulary of buildings designed to meet business and urban needs in the early 20th century. With the publication, the National Trust urged community leaders to make decisions grounded in a historical perspective of the community, for a community's history is its soul.

The book opened the eyes of community leaders everywhere to the wealth of architectural treasures in their midst. It turned the tide. From the East Coast to the West, and towns and cities in between, the barbaric practice of simply knocking down any building from another era gave way to thoughtful and skillful preservation and adaptive reuse of historical structures. The science and technology available to architects and structural engineers today make saving any structure, or portion thereof, a viable option when thoughtfully and creatively applied. In other words, where there is a will, there is a way.

Beginning in the 1920s, Madison Street was Oak Park's very own Motor Row, similar to Chicago's historic Motor Row on the near South Side. Chicago's Motor Row has lost some of its historic structures, but the brakes were put on demolition and now the remaining structures are being preserved, adapted and reused. In 2000, the city of Chicago named its Motor Row a historic district, and in 2002, Chicago's Motor Row was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Concerning the Hill Motor Company building, there is much to preserve, both in terms of south Oak Park's history with its own Motor Row, and also in terms of the showroom's wonderful, whimsical and beautifully detailed masonry and terra cotta work of the south- and east-facing facades.

Under the classification system used by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the building would be considered a modified "arcaded block." Designed by famed Oak Park architect Eben Ezra Roberts in 1924, the Hill Motor Company building was among his final works before his retirement in 1926. The arcades and structure of the building are beautifully articulated by columns and frames of terra cotta. The large bays of windows, designed to show off the latest luxurious Packard automobiles, are made possible by an inner skeleton of structural steel. Above each window bay is a clerestory window grouping.

Beneath the parapet is a cornice of terra cotta, and incorporated within that cornice, centered on each bay and carved in stone, are "grotesques." Gargoyles are a type of grotesque. In this case, they are whimsical caricatures of the people who built and repair automobiles, holding tools or symbols of their craft. They are a very unique feature, and a direct tie to Oak Park's Motor Row.

One can easily imagine that by exposing the clerestory windows to the open space and skylighting a portion of this "showroom," what an elegant and attractive "Pete's Café" this would be, a great addition to the neighborhood to meet and eat. It makes sense to preserve several bays, including the arched entranceway on the south-facing façade and two bays on the east-facing façade. Both facades would require some restoration of the terra cotta.

The village of Oak Park already has a good track record of working with developers for the preservation and adaptive reuse of two properties just down the street from the Hill Motor Company building. First, the masterful restoration, modification and reuse of the building originally designed as a Cadillac showroom (which is now Sugar Beet), was designed originally by Detroit architect Albert Kahn, famous for his industrial and commercial structures and a leader of the modernist movement of the time. 

In the case of the new Walgreens at Madison and Oak Park, the masonry facades of what was originally known as the Collins Building, a commercial structure of the period of Motor Row, were expertly preserved with the use of a structural steel backup frame.

By working with the developers of these properties, the village has taken great steps to preserve the architectural history of this part of Oak Park. That type of cooperative effort must be successfully employed again to preserve the facades of the Hill Motor Company building.

In 2006, the architectural/engineering firm of Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates performed an historic survey of the village, including the Madison Street Corridor. Prominent throughout the report is the historic importance of Oak Park's Motor Row. At One time in the '50s, there were 16 new auto dealerships and their associated businesses along Madison Street. The survey by Wiss Janney noted seven existing properties along Madison that were considered meritorious, two of which were considered to be significant for local landmark status, and one property deemed by Wiss Janney to be worthy for consideration to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The building Wiss Janney was referring to was the Hill Motor Company building.

Preservation of our history must always be primary and consistent in the village of Oak Park. E.E. Roberts designed more buildings in Oak Park than any other architect. He had the respect of his friend and neighbor, Frank Lloyd Wright. As we would not tear down a Wright building, or a Drummond building, or a Maher building, we should preserve the facades of this Roberts building. 

There are architectural and structural solutions that allow for the incorporation of the facades, or portions thereof, into the design of the new structure. It would be elegant. With a spirit of cooperation in the community and good will among the parties involved, it can be done, and it should be done.

Here's hoping to see you at Pete's Packard Café!

Richard Katz, R.A., is a member of the Oak Park Architectural League.

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