Dominican hopes to buy Hemingway home

Partnership calls for university to lease with option to buy in 2011

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By KEN TRAINOR

Dominican University of River Forest and the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park on Friday formalized a partnership to restore the Hemingway Boyhood Home, 600 N. Kenilworth. The university plans to lease the home for the next two years and, if all goes well, assume title of the property by the end of 2011.

Representatives of the university and the foundation held a signing ceremony on the front lawn of the century-old stucco four-square Friday afternoon. Present for the ceremony were Oak Park Village President David Pope, Village Manager Tom Barwin, OPRF High School Supt. Attila Weninger, Oak Park Library Director Deirdre Brennan, Historical Society Executive Director Frank Lipo and state Sen. Don Harmon (D-39th), among others.

Harmon was praised for his help in securing a $150,000 grant from the state to begin the restoration process. The university and foundation estimate the entire project will cost as much as $2 million. Harmon recalled riding his Stingray past the home on the way to the park by nearby Holmes School as a kid, long before he ever read anything by Hemingway.

"This is exactly the kind of partnership the state should be encouraging," Harmon said.

The Hemingway Foundation acquired the Hemingway Boyhood Home in July 2001 after the previous owner, Eileen Burns, who had given the foundation the right of first refusal, died at the age of 94. Board Chairman Allan Baldwin called it "more of an opportunity than a plan. We needed to do something or it would fall into private hands," which might have resulted in an extensive rehab. As it was, the foundation was only able to buy the home with the assistance of "a generous, community-minded person."

To call it a financial stretch was an understatement. Because the foundation is a volunteer organization with limited fundraising capacity, its members could never do much with the building. They continued to rent the building out (it functions as a three-flat) and kept it up as well as they could. But they didn't have the money for a complete rehab.

A committee was appointed to figure out what to do with it. They ruled out another museum because of the home's location in a residential neighborhood. All they knew, Baldwin said, is that they didn't want to be in the real estate business.

"That's not our mission."

The committee suggested forging a partnership with an institution in a better financial position, one that could also expand their programmatic capacity. Baldwin said they explored several possibilities, but none panned out.

"They all said, 'It's a good idea, but we don't have the money.'"

Then two years ago, former foundation board chair Virginia Cassin started discussions with Dominican University President Donna Carroll.

"One of their slogans is 'Amazing Possibilities,'" Cassin recalled. "I said, 'That's my middle name.'"

Those discussions led to negotiations between Baldwin and Amy McCormack, Dominican's business director. Meanwhile, Carroll needed to sell the concept to a skeptical board.

"We didn't want to be in the museum business," she said.

But they are in the business of expanding their reputation as an institute of higher learning, and close linkage with a world-famous author like Ernest Hemingway fit right in. The board had concerns about taking on such a commitment during an economic downturn.

"That's why we designed a two-year window," Carroll said, "to put the pieces in place programmatically and financially to make this work."

The plan, which is still taking shape, is to continue to rent out the second floor, perhaps to a faculty member, and make the first and third floors accessible to the public. Dominican and the Hemingway Foundation would collaborate on programs and meetings with visiting scholars.

Carroll indicated they may go for landmark status, and they also hope to rebuild the music room on the north side of the house, where Ernest's mother, Grace, once taught music lessons and held recitals.

Dominican has considerable experience with large capital fundraising projects. Meanwhile, the foundation has connections with the Hemingway family and scholars.

"Dominican can bring capacity, academically and financially," Carroll said. "We are a healthy institution, we've grown substantially and we have big aspirations.

"Hemingway's reputation could allow Dominican to stretch," she added. "That gets my juices pumping."

The model for such a partnership is not new, she said. "Universities have been taking on public academic initiatives that extend the university into the community. This is an opportunity to do something for the community."

It is certainly a boon for the Hemingway Foundation. The Boyhood Home wasn't draining them financially so much as it drained the energy of an already stretched volunteer organization, Baldwin said.

Basically they're looking to break even on the $100,000 they put into the purchase of the property. But this is more than a mere conveyance of property, Baldwin noted. They hope the partnership will allow both institutions to enhance their missions through collaborative programming. The foundation, he said, can assist in the fundraising because they have 26 years' experience telling Hemingway's story.

The two-year window, he said, gives the current residents of the home the chance to make other plans.

It will also allow the foundation to focus on other attractive opportunities, such as the possibility of acquiring the property to the north of the Hemingway Birth Home on Oak Park Avenue which could provide space for a visitor center at some point.

But that's all far off in the future, Baldwin said. "We have more property than we can handle now. We'd love to be able to do it. Maybe there's some angel out there."

Dominican is angel enough for the present. Carroll said they hope to make a strong case so the community sees the value and potential of this venture and begins to invest. They hope to combine state, federal, community, foundation and academic resources to make it all work.

"We want to put in place a program that excites people about this partnership," she said.

Asked if she's a fan of the author, Carroll turned diplomat. "Hemingway is controversial on a variety of levels," she said, "but controversy is the subject of good academic study. He'll always have supporters and critics. Who hasn't read Hemingway in high school?"

Carroll said they were attracted to Hemingway's global perspective and his family history as much as his literary reputation. Nonetheless, "he was one of the most well known writers of his day. It's a privilege to have this in our community. An academic institution like ours should contribute something to sustaining that."

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