Proposed Wright center faces opposition

Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission unlikely to approve demolition, alterations to historic structures

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

The Frank Lloyd Wright Trust's plan to build a new visitor and education center next to the famed architect's home and studio got off to a rough start this week with a presentation to the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission.

The commission took no action on either of the trust's plans to either remove or demolish a historic home at 925 Chicago Ave. and alter another historic building at 931 Chicago Ave.

The proposals are part of a plan to make more space for a new 8,000- to 9,000-square-foot visitor and education facility. Representatives of the trust presented their request for a certificate of appropriateness for the proposed demolition/removal and alteration to the commission at a meeting on July 11, but commissioners roundly opposed both proposals.

In taking no action on either request, the applicant can request a public hearing, where the commission can officially deny the application. If that takes place, then the trust can appeal to the Oak Park Board of Trustees.

The trust also has the options of amending and resubmitting the proposal or withdrawing the request.

Celeste Adams, president and CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, said at the commission meeting that her organization has been working on the proposal for three years – since the trust purchased the residential building at 925 Chicago Ave. in 2016.

She said the center would serve residents of the community of Oak Park as well as tourists visiting the village.

Adams said the trust has learned that many people who have lived in Oak Park their entire lives have never visited the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, which stands adjacent to the 20,000-square-foot site on which the center would be located.

She added that the audience for preserving Wright's legacy is aging and the new center is an effort to reach out to the next generation.

"The role of education is paramount as we look to the future," Adams told the commission.

While Adams did give a brief rundown of the amenities – gift shop, education center, library, design studio, conference rooms and storage area for guests, among others – the meeting primarily focused on whether the alterations to the 931 building and proposed removal of the 925 building were appropriate in the historic district.

Lisa DiChiera, director of advocacy for Landmarks Illinois, argued that the house at 931 Chicago, formerly occupied by Wright's mother Anna, was built circa 1866 and is one of the oldest homes in Oak Park.

The proposal for that building would remove several additions to the structure. DiChiera argued that one of the additions was likely added sometime between 1895 and 1905 "and one could therefore assume that Wright was involved in its construction on behalf of his mother," she said.

"In our view, the loss of these wings would eliminate another layer of Wright's and his family's history on this property and his mother's and his sister's years of occupying the historic home," she said.

DiChiera also argued against the demolition of the 925 building, saying it would set a bad precedent for future demolitions in the village and that demolitions in such a historic district should only be allowed due to economic hardship or when the building poses a threat to the life and safety of the public. "Neither is the case here," she said.

John Eifler, a former board member of Landmarks Illinois and the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, also argued against the proposed demolition, stating that it is "disappointing to read that the organization believes the house is 'of no architectural significance' when it actually serves as a model to compare typical housing of the period to Wright's home and studio."

He said the current trust board consists of "members with little architectural and preservation training experience."

"As such, I believe they have missed the mark with their advocacy of this proposed project, as it presents a building that is inconsistent with its residential setting as well as the previous preservation goals of the organization," he said.

While testimony and letters to the commission largely opposed the project, the plan received some support.

Aberdeen Marsha-Ozga, chair of the Visit Oak Park board of directors, said in a letter to the commission that the center would "accommodate an array of special events, including lectures, receptions and other community and educational gatherings."

"A new visitor and education center will not only strengthen Visit Oak Park's partnership with the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, but also support our joint efforts to grow tourism locally and to serve the Oak Park community," Marsha-Ozga wrote.

Patrick Loughran, an Oak Park architect and AIA fellow, said he was "very excited about the opportunities the trust has for the site."

"I see this as an incredible opportunity to do something great in Oak Park," he said.

He noted that Wright likely faced similar opposition when proposing the design for his masterpiece Unity Temple. Loughran added that he was discouraged by the direction the commission was headed with the proposal. "It could be a missed opportunity," he said.

The trust appears poised to move forward with its proposal, releasing a statement on Friday, July 12, expressing "thanks to our many Oak Park neighbors and community residents who have expressed unqualified support of this visionary plan."

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Reader Comments

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Carollina Song from Oak Park  

Posted: July 20th, 2019 5:49 PM

My husband and I own a FLW home; I mention this only to note that I am familiar with the painstaking process of balancing historic preservation with modern needs. We worked with noted architect and preservationist John Vinci, who I know to be someone with exacting standards and very strong opinions. Vinci's firm put in a bid for the proposed FLW Visitors Center which was not chosen. Because we are all only human, I would not have been surprised if Vinci was vehemently opposed to John Ronan's winning design for the Visitors Center. However, Vinci has stated that John Ronan is one of the most important architects working today, and that the new FLW Visitors Center will be a huge benefit to the community. There has been a lot of new construction in DTOP; I and others lament the lost opportunities for those new buildings to at least be architecturally interesting, rather than the "cookie cutter" buildings that we see. I am pleased that the board of the FLW Preservation Trust thoughtfully engaged in a competitive design process with highly-regarded architects. I am wholeheartedly in favor of John Ronan's design for the FLW Visitors Center, and can't wait to check it out. The design is beautiful and understated so as not to detract from the neighborhood. I believe it is well worth the tradeoff of losing a house that is not architecturally notable, but also one that someone can claim and move if that is their desire.

Joan Winstein from DENVER  

Posted: July 18th, 2019 12:46 PM

Re: I heartily agree with Kline Maureen's comments, noting that the FLWH&S has not done much marketing at all to OP/RF residents. The article notes,""Adams said the trust has learned that many people who have lived in Oak Park their entire lives have never visited the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, ......" As a previous OP Girl Scout and Cub Scout leader, and a Room Parent, all at Holmes School (across the street), I TRIED several times to negotiate an affordable "group rate" for local children to visit the H&S. The FLWH&S refused to discount any tickets to school and/or scout groups, so we never went. And, unlike most museums around the country, how many, if ANY, "Free Residents' Visiting Days" have there ever been? I am sure the budget is tight, and discounted tickets do not "pay the bills", but that FLW H&S policy meant NO ticket revenue from scout or school groups where every child could not afford the prices, and fewer visitors from the neighborhood overall. Ms. Adams, what could YOU have done to market the H&S better in OP and RF? It's not solely the residents' fault that few have actually visited.....

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: July 18th, 2019 8:07 AM

Visit Oak Park just went totally on line. Yet FLW insist that "the audience for preserving Wrights legacy is aging and the new center is an effort to reach out to the next generation" In an article in this weeks WJ, Visit Oak Park just went totally on line. The next generation is digital, nor brick and mortar. What does Visit Oak Park know that FLLW does not know, or want to listen to? Posted before, the auto showroom on Madison Street needs to be preserved. Let FLW buy the building, rehab and shuttle bus visitors to and from, creating less of a parking problem for the entire neighborhood. Win win all around. By the way, The Chicago Defender in August will cease its print format, going all on line. The Chicago Defender probably serves a community on the wrong side of the digital divide. Remember the $20,000 in Village tax money given to The FLW Foundation to remove a utility pole from the front of the property. The $20,000 could have been covered by a one time dollar a ticket entry price and recovered by FLW in less than two years. And the entry fee could have been lowered once the needed money was raised.

Keith Bringe  

Posted: July 18th, 2019 1:21 AM

It is astonishing to think the FLLW Trust doesn't understand that demolishing historic structures weakens the Historic District and its legal protections. The Home and Studio received incalculable support from the preservation community and now they will turn their back like some kind of autonomous, floating ship. And no where in this proposal do I see that this will increase the number of visitors. The current visitors center / gift shop is cozy but effective use. This seems like an Executive's rationale for a legacy or their salary.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: July 16th, 2019 9:10 AM

The idea that the new center has to be right next to the Home and Studio is presented as the only option, when it could be anywhere within walking distance of the Home and Studio. People could start at the Studio, see it, walk the neighborhood and then end up at some brand new center a block or two away. That opens up all sorts of options that do not involve ripping down old structures as they are now. It could be in DTOP in the old Marshall Fields building for example.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: July 16th, 2019 7:42 AM

Paragraph 9: "She added that the audience for preserving the Wrights legacy is aging and the new center is an effort to reach out to the next generation" The next generation is connected to the Wright legacy by means of the internet,thru facebook thru the I pad to their celephone. Did anyone from The FLW Foundation reach out and ask the next generation what exactly the next generation wants? What do the outreach studies show? I don't think it is brick and mortar. Remember the Village paid $20,000 in taxpayer money to remove a utility from the front of the property. Was there any increase in the amount of visitors when Village tax money was used to remove the utility pole. Empty verbage before facts, always.

Gregg Kuenster from River Forest  

Posted: July 15th, 2019 8:19 PM

Christopher Goode AMEN!!! This is an example of how things go wrong with local decision making. The proposal looks like a high usage shelter in a state park. The do gooders on the commission are building a cement box. They think it is great not in spite of but because normal folks think its bland and destructive to the history of Mr. Wright and his ideas. They do not get the idea thing. An idea is a feeling ? a stream of thought. We honor Mr. Wright for his vision ? his stream of thought. The commission is like many local boards and commissions. The kids moved out, the marrige is dull and here they are trying to look smart. No room for truth or ideas. Leave truth and ideas to somebody else. Lets tell normal folks ? you do not get IT. What do you think Mr. Wright would say about the large cement boxes at Harlem / Lake and Harlem / South Boulevard? A cement box is a cement box.

Christopher Goode from Oak Park  

Posted: July 15th, 2019 7:14 PM

The job of the Historic Preservation Commission is to protect the historic fabric of the village. We have national and local historic districts to protect the context of Prairie style buildings and their more traditional contemporaries. The commision is doing exactly what they were charged to do. That an organization like the Wright Home and Studio Foundation, charged with preserving and displaying one of these Prairie Style buildings would propose tearing down and altering two adjacent buildings of the same period is sad, and that an architect as well known and respected as John Ronan would propose the same is even sadder. As an architect, I feel I have some right to say that it is a poor architect that can't work with an existing building as good as the one proposed to be removed to get the foundation what it wants, and it is a poor preservation foundation that would support its removal. There are other ways to get this kind of visitor center. These other ways need to be further developed. Just because they have spent three years pursuing this boondoggle is not an excuse to follow through with it. We don't need it this desperately.

Kline Maureen  

Posted: July 15th, 2019 6:12 PM

this seems to be a good commentary on their real intentions - - if, after 35+ years of heavy marketing with all the resources they have at their disposal, they can't get residents interested, maybe its because they don't really care about the residents. "Adams said the trust has learned that many people who have lived in Oak Park their entire lives have never visited the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, which stands adjacent to the 20,000-square-foot site on which the center would be located..." It's nothing more than a soundbite.

Brian Souders  

Posted: July 15th, 2019 2:04 PM

The aregument that the white house at 925 Chicago has special value because "it actually serves as a model to compare typical housing of the period to Wright's home and studio," as John Eifler states, is extraordinarily weak. There are dozens of homes from the same time and style surrounding the Home & Studio (just 10 feet away, even!). In fact, there are hundreds of them in the FLW Historic District. One house is not going to change the historic character of the District. And while he argues that Trust board members have "little architectural and preservation training experience," I would argue hard core preservationists have very little or no tourist attraction, visitor services, economic development or fundraisng experience. Let's hope the Village Board sees the Trust plan as a major net win for the community.

Brian Souders  

Posted: July 15th, 2019 1:51 PM

@Eric, you are getting two homes confused. The Trust would move/remove the white building in the photo to the East of the property to build the visitor's center. They ALSO are requesting to make some exterior modifications to the beigh home on the property that Wright's mother lived in.

Jeffrey Smith  

Posted: July 12th, 2019 7:46 PM

It's a dreadful idea to take something down in the residential area when so much space is available a short walk away in Downtown Oak Park and the Lake / Oak Park business district. Cut multi-year deal with one of the landlords (emphasis on land, not lord) to use their space for a good cultural and community purpose.

Eric Davis from Oak Park  

Posted: July 12th, 2019 6:56 PM

Curious that no one seems to be seeking a median position. Pat Loughran is certainly (W)right to note that, when the Home and Studio and our Village's other Wright gems were being built, they were VERY different than their neighbors, and some at least required teardowns of older homes. At the same time, John Eifler is also correct to note not only the historic link, because of Frank's Mom, but also the likelihood that one or more of the additions also were done by FLLW. SO - why is the only option a tear-down? Why is the only option John Ronan's thankfully modest "background" building, which nonetheless would require demolition? He's a fine architect - send him back to Rhino (design software) to look at an addition (and we needn't worry that he would do Fake Historic; it would still be NeoMod) rather than a teardown?

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