Alternative proposal floated for Frank Lloyd Wright center

Demolition opponents to attend Historic Preservation Commission meeting

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

Opposition is organizing against a proposal by the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust to demolish two historic buildings to make room for a new visitor and education center on land adjacent to the Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio – and now an alternative proposal has emerged.

An Oak Park architect, who has renovated three Frank Lloyd Wright homes – one of which he lives in – has joined with a group of preservationists and is suggesting a new proposal that would preclude the demolition of a historic residence at 925 Chicago Ave. and some of the alterations proposed for another historic building at 931 Chicago Ave.

Paul Harding, of Harding Partners Architects, and others plan to attend a meeting of the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission on Tuesday, Aug. 27 at 7:30 p.m. at Oak Park Village Hall, 123 Madison St., in room 201.

It will be the second time the commission has heard testimony on the proposal. The commission, which only provides a recommendation to the Oak Park Board of Trustees, appeared poised to reject the proposal at its July 11 meeting.

Harding said in a telephone interview it is not a "binary choice" of either demolishing and altering the buildings versus not constructing a visitor center.

His alternative proposal would place the center further back from Chicago Avenue, behind the residential buildings in question. The alternative visitor center would have a smaller footprint – about 9,000 square feet for the existing proposal and roughly 7,600 square feet for the alternative proposal – than the one proposed by the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust.

Harding said he opposes the proposal to demolish the home at 925 Chicago – one of the oldest structures in the village – and remove some additions to the 931 Chicago building – once lived in by Wright's mother Anna Lloyd Wright – also because of the precedent such demolitions would set for other proposed demolitions in historic districts in Oak Park.

"It blows apart the Oak Park Historic Preservation Ordinance," he said, noting that such demolitions are typically only approved if the building is in disrepair or imposes a financial burden on the owner. "It's such a terrible precedent, and other people will use that precedent."

He said allowing one entity to demolish and alter homes in the historic district and not others would result in lawsuits against the village.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Trust released a statement in response to the alternative proposal, calling it unacceptable.

"The proposal distributed to the porches of neighborhood homes by a local architect was unsolicited and unauthorized," the trust noted. "From the outset, the trust worked with a selected group of some of the most highly respected architects in Chicago, who were given critical information about the project's goal and operational requirements.

"This proposal does not address the myriad of our considerations and proper context and does not provide an acceptable alternative to our carefully considered plan."

Harding said he and a group of architects and concerned interests met with officials at the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust and presented Harding's alternative proposal, but it is uncertain whether the plan gained any traction.

In a letter sent to neighbors of the home and studio, Harding argues that the legacy of the site where the homes in question and Wright's studio now stand would be altered to the extent that it would "create a false history that never existed in Wright's time."

Harding is encouraging stakeholders to turn out for the upcoming Historic Preservation Commission. Meanwhile, the local political group VOICE of Oak Park also is calling on its members to show up to the meeting to oppose the trust's plan.

"Oak Park's Historic Preservation Commission has denied past applications to demolish contributing properties," VOICE's Josh Klayman wrote in a Facebook post. "It has no grounds for making an exception for 925 Chicago Avenue—an exception that would open the door to other such demolitions and make a mockery of a Historic Preservation Ordinance that has served the village well since 1972."

Klayman said in a telephone interview that many of the VOICE members are unhappy with the design proposed by the trust, but the bigger issue is the precedent set by the teardown.

"If the Frank Lloyd Wright people can say, "We need that space to build one of these because it would be good for us," what precedent does that set?" Klayman asked.

tim@oakpark.com

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Reader Comments

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Christine Vernon  

Posted: August 30th, 2019 12:12 AM

(continued from below)There were many well-informed intelligent statements that night by many involved and prominent Oak Parkers. But anyone who wants to have an informed opinion and have the facts on that meeting and the issue at hand, should not take anyone's word for anything - like the fact that The Trust worked on this project before three years without ever discussing their grandiose plan with people who lived in the area around the Home and Studio, people who maintain their homes, pay their taxes, "stakeholders" as The Trust referred to neighbors at the meeting. Stakeholders, who up until lately, thought they had a good relationship with the Home and Studio which has almost always graciously sent out notices to neighbors each year, from everything to when surrounding streets might be closed or impacted by traffic considerations as a result of Wright Plus tours, or carolers would be out caroling near Christmas and by simply putting your porch light on, they would serenade neighbors. They went out of their way to create and maintain a good relationship with neighbors. Instead, those people wondering about the facts, should just watch the video at this link below and then they will get a crash course on Oak Park history regarding historic preservation and efforts that have historically been done to protect the work of Wright and all the other 99+ architects that comprise Oak Park's rich architectural heritage. http://oak-park.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=3&clip_id=1133&fbclid=IwAR3Zb4-C-bqg3jnRWVrwX-nw2nzya4aYiofzya8Mg-56FXXuMOikzhVw9C0

Christine Vernon  

Posted: August 30th, 2019 12:09 AM

Shocking Brian, is how uninformed some people actually are when it comes to Oak Park history, the history of historic preservation in Oak Park, and, the history of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio. Docents don't really know all of this history either, do they? We can all learn so much from people who have been on the front line for years keeping records and being involved in key decisions on what constitutes "Preservation." The Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust's hearing before the Historic Preservation Commission met with enormous opposition this past Tuesday night (9.27.2019). The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, responsible for successfully nominating Unity Temple to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site list; and, The National Trust for Historic Preservation, both opposed The Trust's proposal for demolition. Each of those organizations fall under that category you describe as "a committee tasked with preservation". Each group has a long history of advocacy protecting Frank Lloyd Wright's work and legacy. Each group registered their opposition to The Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust's enormous plans for change involving the demolition plans for the two structures in the lots east, adjacent to the Home and Studio on this past Tuesday night (9.27.2019). Paul Harding was just one respected architect who, as owner and restoration architect on a Wright home, given his professional expertise and experience, expressed his opinion in opposition to The Trust's proposal to tear down 925 Chicago Avenue and tear down the south and east addition on 921 Chicago Avenue based on his professional expertise and experience. Not shocking was that numerous prominent local historians and architects also opposed the project, including a former head of the Historic Preservation Commission, and other members who served on that Board and other Commissions, The Design Commission, for instance. There were many

Brian Souders  

Posted: August 29th, 2019 6:12 PM

C'mon Nicholas. The Preservation Trust should get an exception because they're Frank Lloyd Wright's Home and Studio, not John and Eunice Smith or Generic Greedy Developer, LLC. And because without the Home and Studio and other Wright works, all these "historic" homes would just be "old" and no tourists would come here. This isn't some slippery slope opponents keep characterizing. This is actually why the process in place exists ?" the preservation committee makes recommendations, and the Village Board, with a wider scope of view, gets the final say. It's not black and white. So, yes, John and Eunice can apply for a demolition permit, the preservation board can evaluate it and the Village Board can decide. As Josh Klayman said, this is the process that has "served the village well since 1972." The sky is not falling.

Nicholas Kalogeresis from Oak Park  

Posted: August 29th, 2019 5:19 PM

Why should the Preservation Trust get an exception when others who have sought to demolish properties in much lesser condition were denied? This isn't about how special the Preservation Trust is an organization and more about the precedent it sets for future HP commissions and village boards when demolition cases are presented to them. It sets a bad precedent for others to claim that they have a "unique" situation that warrants a mulligan from the rules everyone else has to play by. The thing is, we do not know who will be future demolition agents in the district and decision-makers at Village Hall that may allow additional demolitions to happen. This starts the community on an unknown path: anything can go in the district because the Preservation Trust was allowed to do it. The Trust has not made the case they need such a facility. Perhaps only when the Darwin Martin House in Buffalo, NY, built a brand new modern visitor center on the ample plot of land they owned a couple of years ago did the Preservation Trust decide they needed one too. Did the Preservation Trust really look at alternatives? I mean really look at it? Probably not. It took another architect to figure that out. The myth that gets perpetuated in Oak Park is that historic districts put places in a glass box where nothing changes. Quite the contrary: people can put additions on their houses and even demolish properties that do not contribute to the district's history. How many of us have seen people walking the blocks around the Home and Studio - imagine if the Historic District had not been put in place more than 40 years ago. What would the neighborhood be like? Probably not what it looks like today and portions of Wright's work and his neighborhood would have been lost. The Studio has benefitted from the historic district just as the district and community has benefitted from the Studio. Certainly, the Studio would have less visitors today without the district in place.

Brian Souders  

Posted: August 29th, 2019 1:30 PM

Finally, I'm certainly no expert like Paul Harding. But I speculate that Wright would laugh at the idea of maintaining "a false history that never happened in Wright's time." Wright was, at his core, an innovator. He was always looking forward and totally committed to designing buildings that reflected the cultural and technological aspects of the time he was building. I bet he would scoff at this idea of putting an entire neighborhood under glass, never to evolve for any reason ?" forever. He might even take a sledgehammer to the nostalgic 925 building himself.

Brian Souders  

Posted: August 29th, 2019 1:28 PM

SHOCKING that a committee tasked with preservation ?" not economic development or health of local institutions or quality of life ?" voted to preserve an old house. Followed by Classic Wednesday Journal comments below, from both the "It's old so it's important" crowd and the "I don't know anything about how the organization works, but I'll tell you how wrong they are" crowd. I am a volunteer docent who gives tours starting at the Home and Studio, and I'm confident this center is both needed and won't erode the historic nature of the neighborhood. This is a visitor management facility for the home and studio, not the entire district. People will buy tickets to the home and studio tour there, staff will work there, the gift shop will sell stuff there, kid and community programs will happen there and there will be adequate bathrooms for tourists to use. Yes, there are issues now with tours leaving on time because there are not adequate washrooms. So, no, you cannot just put a "visitors center by the library." As the Journal editorial said, this won't obliterate the historic preservation ordinance ?" this is an exception for a world-renown cultural institution, not some speculating developer. I also find it hilarious when folks are outraged at ANY change from the original buildings or neighborhood, but never say anything about the garage being used as a gift shop, temporary tents and plastic lockers, and 100 years of modifications to FLW's mother's house.

Keith Bringe from Chicago  

Posted: August 28th, 2019 1:21 AM

A really bad idea promoted by an overpaid CEO trying to create a legacy. Why can't this center happen east of Unity Temple? Or somewhere as a gateway to the Village?

Christine Vernon  

Posted: August 27th, 2019 6:46 PM

OK, so correction 'ins' is actually Line 11.

Christine Vernon  

Posted: August 27th, 2019 6:42 PM

Correction to my post. I AM NOT in favor of putting the Visitors Center adjacent or on the property of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio. Find a place elsewhere in the Village more appropriate, near the library is a good suggestion I have heard. 2nd correction - line 8 "ins" replace with 'skip the process of'

Christine Vernon  

Posted: August 27th, 2019 6:37 PM

Speak to the Trust's leadership you say, Jim Frenkel? They don't even believe in free speech? The reporting said they responded to Paul Harding's exercise of his constitutional right to free speech with a scolding: "The proposal distributed to the porches of neighborhood homes by a local architect was unsolicited and unauthorized." Exactly whose authorization did Mr. Harding need? The Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust's? They also wrote "From the outset, the trust worked with a selected group of some of the most highly respected architects in Chicago, who were given critical information about the project's goal and operational requirements." One wants to point out to them "Well, you sure jumped the gun doing all your P.R.work and picking an architect, and assembling your supporters while announcing widely and with pride, your new project. You did that without being fully-informed about Oak Parks rules and ordinances. You thought your project was so important you would just ins about applying for a demolition permit in the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District. Neither did you face the fact that the Visitors Center is actually a business/commercial building and the area you want to put it is zoned "residential". Something's wrong down there at your organization to operate putting the cart before the workhorses. Did you think that you could just announce and insinuate your project on this site? Thank you Mr. Harding for your thoughtful opinion. I am in favor of the Vistiors Center being put on the Wright property, but I appreciate that you see the destruction of the Italianate House, left to deteriorate by The Preservation Trust, and the proposed demolition of the back of "Anna's Cottage" the way so many of us see it, who have a long history in the neighborhood, as disrespectful to all of our historical efforts, for decades, to keep the Home and Studio in its original context and setting, something "The Trust" does not deem an important consideration

Jim Frenkel  

Posted: August 27th, 2019 2:01 PM

The coverage of this issue seems incomplete. Did the reporter actually reach out directly to the Trust to get more information about the administrative burden and the operating costs of the structure at 925 Chicago? When I last walked by it, it looked in complete disrepair. While this article is full of the points from the Preservation Council's perspective (and objectively speaking as an OP home owner they can be DIFFICULT to work with at best), it would be good from a journalistic integrity standpoint to talk directly with the Trust's leadership to better understand their position.

Nicholas Kalogeresis from Oak Park  

Posted: August 27th, 2019 1:02 PM

Thank you Mr. Harding. Who would have thought that when the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District was established decades ago that an agent of demolition would be the Home Studio. Go figure. The Commission and the Village Board should deny this request.

Tad Wefel  

Posted: August 27th, 2019 12:10 AM

if this plan to demolish FLW neighboring properties goes through it will virtually beg developers to file lawsuits against the village is to tear down not just homes within the district, but anywhere in Oak Park. Either its protected, or its not. Oak Park, this is where you choose between protecting your uniqueness or becoming Hinsdale.

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