Mars Mansion falls amid calls to protect historic homes

Preservationists fear demolition of other significant RF properties

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By Deborah Kadin

With one of River Forest's most storied teardowns as a backdrop, residents on Sept. 24 urged the village's Historic Preservation Commission to strengthen the rules governing what can happen to the community's architecturally significant properties.

On the heels of the demolition of the nearly 100-year-old Mars Mansion, a nearly packed community room showed up to support proposed changes to the village's historic preservation ordinance.

Since its adoption in 2007, the ordinance has been described, even by commissioners, as toothless. It contains no real protections for the 296 properties identified in a survey as significant to the architecture and history of River Forest. Demolition is treated like any other change to a building, be it renovation or repair or window replacement, Chairman Dave Franek said.

That will change if amendments discussed last week are approved by the River Forest Village Board. A vote could take place in November.

Without them, commissioners and historic preservationists expressed concern the teardown of the Mars Mansion, 930 Ashland Ave., could just be the beginning of turning significant homes into McMansions, damaging the community's ambiance and the high quality of its streetscape.

Commissioner Tom Zurowski feared that the same fate could befall the William Winslow House, a historically significant example of the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. It was Wright's first important independent commission after leaving Louis Sullivan's office, Zurowski said. The home, which is listed for sale, was designed in 1893 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"The fact that a developer could do the same to Winslow House, the way the ordinance is structured, is wrong. We should have the ability to have some say in what our heritage is in the future as what it's been in the past," Zurowski said.

One amendment would require homeowners wanting a demolition permit for an important property to wait for up to 180 days from the date a complete application is filed until a final decision is issued by village trustees.

That timeframe would take into account a series of appeals. Homeowners of significant properties also would be required to attend meetings where alterations to more than 20 percent of their façade were being discussed.

Franek and some of the 60-plus residents in attendance called the changes modest. He added they would be in line with similar waiting periods in a number of surrounding communities.

The meeting allowed residents to air their feelings about new rules and the demolition of 930 Ashland Ave., which was razed last week. No one clapped after comments; there was no back chatter. And the audience was courteous to those, such as Jane McClelland, who had an opposing view.

The president of Oak Park Association of Realtors, McClelland, a River Forest resident, noted that while she appreciates the value that responsible preservation brings to the community, she said a prolonged delay in issuing a demolition permit would have a negative impact on the homeowner's property rights. 

"The costs that would be encumbered … would have negatively impact the home's value," she said.

Proponents noted that preservation makes economic sense and protects a community's sense of place. Architecturally significant homes enhance property values and teardowns built as a result could adversely affect the value of surrounding houses, a number of them said.

Carlotta Lucchesi, who lives in a historically significant home, said the proposed amendments to the historic preservation ordinance would protect property values. 

"If this community becomes a teardown community, it will devalue the real estate values of all of us," she said. "We stayed because of the quality of the community and the houses and interesting architecture we have."

Former Oak Park resident Ron Weslow said there's an equally greater right of responsibility to the larger community "for residents who will live here for decades to come."

Janet Saeger, a River Forest resident since 1977, said the village's diversity of architecture is unique, distinctive and defines the community. She expressed concern that while village government has a strong commitment to bright future — part of River Forest's motto — she sensed a "lack of the same level of commitment to proud heritage," the other part of the village's motto.

"Historic preservation requires pro-action," Saeger said. "A substantial ordinance, education and zoning are all parts of that pro-active process. One is not an alternate to another."

Preservation also would add value because they would attract more tourism to River Forest. Saeger and Chris Raino Ogden noted that tour buses come to the village to see the homes and the streetscape. 

"This is what brings value to the community," Raino Ogden said. "What we have is something special, and it's what makes living in this community as valuable as it is."

Proposed changes to the historic preservation ordinance have been discussed since February. The timing over adoption became more critical because of the razing of the Mars Mansion. Built nearly a century ago, one of River Forest's grandest estates sat on a 35,880-square-foot parcel of land in River Forest's only historic district.

Those in attendance were dismayed at what happened. Marcia Coleman, a neighbor of the mansion, wondered why it happened "all of a sudden." 

In explaining the background, Franek noted it was purchased by Avra Properties; trustees approved subdividing it. The commission this summer denied a certificate of appropriateness, which is necessary for demolition; its decision was merely advisory.

Franek noted that grandchildren of Paul Victor, the original builder of the house, contacted Avra a number of times so they could retrieve some cutting-edge artifacts that their grandfather, an electrical and plumbing supply contractor, had installed in the house. Their calls were never returned.  

A grandson of the architect, Harry Franklin Robinson, wanted to take pictures of the interior to add to an archive, housed at the University of Illinois; calls were not returned, Franek said.

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Jennifer Jordan  

Posted: October 1st, 2015 6:44 PM

I would like to know if any person or group was given the opportunity to salvage before the house was bulldozed. The article states that there were various requests made, other than for photographs to be taken, and that phone calls were not returned.

Jim Blaha  

Posted: September 30th, 2015 9:34 AM

The only group (besides the press) that contacted the buyer of 930 Ashland (Owner) was Oak Park Historic Society. They were promptly given a tour of the house with the Owner's architect and took whatever pictures they wanted. The previous owner sent a letter to the owner which arrived middle of last week (after tear down started). Owner is connecting the previous owner with Oak Park Historic Society to get their pictures. In addition, Owner sent a detailed analysis of the property and rehab viability (including supporting pictures) to RF Historic Preservation (HP) even though not required. Owner would have met with HP in a private meeting at any time as provided in the Preservation Ordinance. No meeting was ever requested. Owner was available and cooperative, Owner just did not want to debate this issue in the press. Please also note Certificate of Appropriateness only applies to Landmark properties. Significant Properties only need give HP notice and scope of work. Owner went above and beyond that requirement by sending in a detailed package. Owner was always available and cooperative.

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