Commission shoots down request to demo Oak Park funeral home

Historic Preservation Commission rejects demolition request


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By Stacey Sheridan

Staff Reporter

The Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission voted unanimously against giving a certificate of appropriateness, as recommended by village staff, to demolish the Drechsler, Brown & Williams Funeral Home, during a virtual Sept. 10 meeting.

"I think it still stands as a contributing resource," said Commissioner Jennifer Bridge.

Applicant Focus Development, a general contractor and development company, wishes to demolish the historic building and garage, located at 203 S. Marion St., to build an apartment complex under 12 stories in height, according to John Lynch of the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation (OPEDC). Focus has hired former Plan Commission chair David Mann as the project's architect.

"I just can't see how a developer can throw away this building from the late 1800s for a development that is not yet defined," said Commissioner Lou Garapolo.

The Historic Preservation Commission agreed that applicant Focus did not provide enough evidence to determine that the building and its garage do not contribute to the Ridgeland-Oak Park Historic District, in which the property is located.

"I don't think that the burden of proof has been met that it doesn't retain its integrity or its character," said Commissioner Noel Weidner.

The structure was built in 1881 as a single-family home for the Rogers family, who were early settlers of Oak Park. In 1920, the Rogers family converted the single-family home into apartments and hired architect E.E. Roberts as the architect to design the conversion. The Rogers lived in the home until about 1926 and then sold it to Earl Drechsler, who adapted it into a funeral home.

"A lot of the interior renovations made by Roberts, we believe, are no longer intact," said Courtney Brower of Focus. "They have been altered significantly over time."

In 1957, Drechsler added the large brick addition, which includes the portico.

"It's important to note that the architectural character of these renovations were not in keeping at all with the original house – kind of a colonial design pasted onto this Queen Ann-style house," said Mann.

Commissioner Sandra Carr did not believe the applicant provided enough evidence to determine that no part of original structure remained underneath the addition.

The building as it currently stands works best as a funeral home. Focus found it unsuitable to convert the structure into something else.

"The amount of money it would take to renovate the home into another use or incorporate it into another development is simply not feasible," said Justin Pelej of Focus.

Reconditioning the structure into offices would include implementing proper accessible entrances, bathrooms, proper fire suppression and more, according to Pelej.

"The rents just would not accommodate the costs associated with making those types of renovations," said Pelej, who did not provide any cost figures.

According to Pelej, that claim was supported by Charles and Lynne Williams, who marked the property through a large broker and indicated to Focus that they received no offers from groups interested in renovating the building or continuing its use as a funeral home.

"That frankly was one of the first questions we asked them," said Pelej.

Pelej also stated that funeral homes are associated with loss and mourning and don't "resonate positivity within the renovation-restoration marketplace."

That argument failed to sway Commissioner Lou Garapolo.

"I'm not convinced that anybody will ever know that this was a funeral home if it could be done in a creative way to create offices or some other use," Garapolo said.

He also stated he saw no evidence to lead him to conclude that the building deserved demolition.

Chair Rebecca Houze shared her belief that the structure and its garage serve as an "anchor" in the historic district.

"Those few single-family homes from the late 19th century which still are standing really serve as kind of anchors, so that you can really see and understand what that original phase of development was," Houze said.

The possibility of demolishing the historic funeral home still remains for Focus. If the representatives from development company choose to, they have the right to go before the Oak Park board of trustees for a hearing. 


This story has been updated to include the full name of Focus Development.





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Reader Comments

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Bill Maxwell  

Posted: September 27th, 2020 11:17 PM

Marlene Russum Scott those town homes fit the height of the area and at that time not many people thought about trying to get a high rise passed through Oak Park because it just was not going to happen. I do not think even now if you tore down property in that area you would you get approval to build a high rise

Marlene Russum Scott from Oak Park  

Posted: September 27th, 2020 9:42 PM

Around 1990, a big old house at 243 S Maple was torn down and 6 townhomes were built on the lot. That's a block away from the funeral home.

Christine Pastor  

Posted: September 15th, 2020 12:56 PM

The "historic aspect" of Oak Park was lost long ago; with the old Mills home highrise; and most recently, both of the South Blvd & Harlem; and the Lake & Forest intersections. Coming up next, the FLW Trust's plans to demolish the victorian home on Chicago Ave to build an unnecessary modern visitor center next to the Home and Studio. If the FLW Trust is really going ahead with those plans, then they NOW have "way" too much money in their fund --> and already know whose pockets will be lined. Ditto for the Hemingway'birthplace home.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: September 13th, 2020 3:24 PM

Too be precise, the 203 S. Marion Street Corporation, owned by Charles Williams.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: September 13th, 2020 3:20 PM

Does anyone know what the four parcels owned by the 203 South Marion Corp are valued at (market) and what they're asking from the developer?

Neal Buer from Oak Park  

Posted: September 13th, 2020 2:22 PM

I don't like to see the current owner's rights extinguished without compensation. That being said, the development should be within current zoning. A 12 story building would make a mockery of what's left of our zoning laws.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: September 13th, 2020 12:21 PM

This is private property. But when they make a deal to break the zoning rules and go taller, so they can make more money, that is good for them but bad for the neighborhood. The Pleasant District, where this project would take place, already has one new giant building dumped into it along South Blvd, with empty retail on the entire 1st floor. It already has a hotel that is being used as a homeless shelter. It already has the Pleasant Home park that bums are allowed to sleep in and leave drug needles behind in, every day. The only parking lot is on this funeral home property, the one that would have the 12 story building. We already also have the ugly Mills Tower that was built with no parking for residents and staff. Enough already.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: September 13th, 2020 11:38 AM

The Farson-Mills HOME, KM. The north-east corner of Mills Park. Mills Tower is on the south end of the park.

Kline Maureen  

Posted: September 13th, 2020 10:44 AM

just to clarify a little, the Albion location is (and was) private property - the fact that it is adjacent to Austin Gardens (public property) was one part of the issue for its opponents - I have no idea about Mills Tower or the property where it is located. or what may have been issues or concerns at the time it was built. Residents should have the right to feel that zoning ordinances in their neighborhood will be followed with limited variances allowed, and only after thorough consideration and for reasons that truly benefit the neighborhood and not just benefit the seller and developer of the property..

Neal Buer from Oak Park  

Posted: September 12th, 2020 7:32 PM

This is private property. To compare this to building Farson-Mills or Austin Gardens is ludicrous. News flash - they are public properties. Restricting a private owner from selling his/her property, and stopping a development is outside police powers. If the development need zoning variances, that's another issue. Once the funeral home is designated an historic property, do we want that property to remain the same for the next thousand years? I don't think so.

Chris Damon  

Posted: September 12th, 2020 6:52 PM

Two separate issues: (1) does the current funeral home structure deserve to be preserved? (2) if not, what should go in its place I've no opinion on #2 above but re: (1) ?" no, I see no reason not to demolish the funeral home buildings. No feasible alternative use can be made of it and it is not aesthetically, architecturally, or historically significant.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: September 12th, 2020 10:22 AM

Eight years ago Anan Abu Taleb announced that "Oak Park is open for business." And there has been good and proper development (although I disagreed with the third tower at the northwest corner of Lake and Forest). But that doesn't mean we don't stop and consider what we're giving up, and, for the life of me, I cannot imagine the historic area around the Carleton Hotel and Dreschler Brown changing as radically as this developer proposes. Anymore than I can imagine a high rise on the site of Farson-Mills House or a four story condo development in Austin Gardens.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: September 12th, 2020 8:55 AM

I am sure someone around town will eventually point out that the building is historic, in a white people oppressing and colonizing indigenous peoples sort of way, which will make it OK to destroy the building. Meanwhile, how does 12 stories become the one and only option? And all these local tall buildings that have retail on the first floor, for property tax purposes, end up having an empty unused floor of retail. Retail is dead.

Mary Kay O'Grady  

Posted: September 12th, 2020 7:33 AM

What Marlene Russum Scott said.

Jeffrey Smith  

Posted: September 12th, 2020 6:45 AM

"Some things are worth saving and some are not." And one of them is the way predatory real estate developers feed at the public trough and destroy the character of everything they touch. "Everything is historic." I can assure you that ghastly high rise apartment buildings recently erected in Oak Park are not historic - they're an eyesore.

Les Golden  

Posted: September 11th, 2020 10:16 PM

A 12-story building just south of Poor Phil's means the outdoors lunch diners will eat in perpetual shadow, never seeing the Sun, not to mention the death of all the trees resulting from being in shadow. Only governments can reverse global warming, but they are the number one contributor.

Al Rossell  

Posted: September 11th, 2020 9:02 PM

Some things are worth saving and some are not. The fact of the matter is that this is not Williamsburg. Many properties in historic districts are becoming obsolete and 20, 30 or 40 years from now may be stuck with properties that are either unsaleable or fail to increase in value . Funeral homes are becoming obsolete as more people opt for cremation. This site provides an opportunity for a reasonable development under the current zoning parameters. No need for extra height or units. Rather than historic districts, architectural controls would be more appropriate. . I would like to see how Mr. Garapolo thinks he could convert this building to another use and be able to break even on it. he knows full well it is not a likely scenario. Anchor to the district? Give me a break. an anchor to the district would best be suited with new apartments with some retail on the first floor. The Historic Commission has only one answer for everything. Everything is historic. They yield a very broad stroke and are a detriment to the community. I would suggest the Village fund research to see what the discrepancy in appreciation has been by comparing the gunderson district and southeast Oak Park from the date of the districts creation to now. It might shed some light on the real disadvantage of historic districts.

Leonard Grossman  

Posted: September 11th, 2020 8:45 PM

How long will it take for the village board to over-rule the commission again? For better or worse?

Mary Pikul  

Posted: September 11th, 2020 7:49 PM

Best comment about the few remaining original buildings: "Those few single-family homes from the late 19th century which still are standing really serve as kind of anchors, so that you can really see and understand what that original phase of development was," Houze said.

Marlene Russum Scott from Oak Park  

Posted: September 11th, 2020 7:20 PM

Don't you think that the home lost its historic significance when the brick addition was built and the interior redesigned for embalming and funerals? I wouldn't want to see a 12 story apartment building on the spot, but I hope the Commision will allow the funeral home to be torn down when a developer presents a plan.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: September 11th, 2020 5:18 PM

Hopefully the village board, this time, respects a unanimous opinion by the HPC. Time to hold a developer's feet to the fire for once.

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