Woodbine home a 'cautionary tale' for historic work

Not following HPC-approved design nets a $250 fine

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By ELENA LEVENSON

The owners of 606 Woodbine Ave. originally followed the rules.

Frantz Degand and Sheila Heilala submitted proposed changes to their house, which is in the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District, to the Oak Park's Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) for approval last July.

But now, a year later, the house is unrecognizable. Village President David Pope said he is "horrified" at the extent of the construction, and neighbors wonder what the consequences are for homeowners who have significantly changed the structure of their historic houses before the village steps in.

The original plans, which included building an addition off the back of the house, opening the enclosed front porch, and reverting to the house's original siding, were approved "with a couple small conditions" by the commission on July 14, 2005, according to Doug Kaare, the village liaison to the HPC.

"Then, it was discovered about a month ago that [demolition on the house] had exceeded the approved plan," Kaare said. "During the construction, [the homeowners and contractor] had discovered that there was much more deterioration than they thought, and instead of going back to the commission ... they just removed everything that needed to be removed, in their opinion."

"So all that was left was the walls, which isn't much," HPC chair Doug Gilbert said. "And that was completely beyond the scope of what was approved." Degand and Heilala declined to comment.

The village quickly issued a stop-work order and the Historic Preservation Commission asked the homeowners to attend its May 24 meeting to explain why they had violated the approved work, Gilbert said. The commission, though "upset" about the unauthorized changes, agreed with the homeowners' reasons.

"If you take the old siding off and there's no original siding, you can't do anything about that," Gilbert conceded. "Ultimately, we didn't blame them for that."

The HPC did, however, request that Degand and Heilala draw up new plans, "documenting the changes they had made to that point, and ... how they were going to [restore the house]," which the commission then approved, Gilbert said.

Even so, because the homeowners had violated the village's historic preservation ordinance, the commission forwarded the case to the village law department for review. Under the ordinance, Village Attorney Ray Heise may determine the extent of "criminal prosecution and penalty" for those who "alter, relocate, remove or demolish any historic landmark." Heise did not return calls for comment on what legal action, if any, the village might pursue.

In a move not specific to historic homes, the village's building department sought to fine the contractor, Moelter Construction, $750 for "expanding the scope of ... the project," according to Steve Witt, director of the building and property standards department. A judge reduced the fine to $250.

At a May 24 village board meeting, Village President David Pope had a different monetary penalty in mind.

"I think [the construction on 606 Woodbine] is a cautionary tale for all of us that may heighten our sensitivity to making sure that there are significant consequences," Pope said, according to the minutes of the meeting. "And by significant consequences ... I would be talking in the tens of thousands of dollars."

Meanwhile, the HPC is uncertain about whether the reconstructed house can be considered historic. "If you tear it all down and rebuild it exactly as it was, it may look like an old house, but it's a new house, Gilbert said.

"There's a fine line somewhere in between with how much replacement is too much and [whether] you've rebuilt it all. In this case, they made the decision without consulting us and I think that's what upsets us the most ... but there were a lot of people on the committee who felt that, in the end, this was not going to be a historic house anymore."

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