Preservation commission rejects Wright plan

Proposal for new visitor center could head to Oak Park Board of Trustees

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

The Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission unanimously rejected a proposal by the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust to demolish or remove a residential building and alter another near the famed architect's Home & Studio to make room for a visitor and education center.

Dozens of Oak Park residents, architects and representatives of historic preservation organizations turned out for the Aug. 28 meeting, most of them voicing opposition to the proposal. 

The plan, revealed to the public in June, proposes to demolish or relocate a residential building at 925 Chicago Ave. and alter a second building at 931 Chicago Ave. — both buildings are immediately east of the home and studio — by removing additions to the building, some of which may have been designed by Wright.

A number of organizations, including Landmarks Illinois, the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, testified against the proposal. 

Bob Miller, chairman of the board of the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, said the organization spent three years working on the proposal before presenting it to the public. 

He said the Home & Studio is the third most visited Wright attraction in the country and hosts 90,000 visitors a year.

The proposed 8,000- to 9,000-square-foot visitor center would include a number of amenities the Home & Studio now lack for the high volume of visitors. Trust representatives have argued that it would serve as an education center for scholars, tourists and locals and provide a space for community events, lectures and receptions. The center also would include a reception hall, gift shop, outdoor plaza and design studio. 

The building at 931 Chicago, built shortly after the Civil War and now used as office space by the Trust, would be modified by removing additions to the east and south wings of the building — added prior to 1940 — that preservationists also consider historic. Wright's mother, Anna Wright, lived in the building while Wright was at the Home & Studio. 

Barbara Gordon, executive director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy, testified in opposition to the plan, saying that allowing the teardown would run counter to the concept of the historic district. 

"It's one of the most important tools of the preservation movement," she said. "Partial demolition or removal undermines the very concept of the historic district."

Lisa DiChiera, director of advocacy for Landmarks Illinois, noted that the historic preservation standards allow for teardowns if the building poses a hazard or there is an economic hardship that necessitates the teardown. "Neither is the case here," she said.

Jim Peters, a volunteer at the Home & Studio, told the commission that restoring the building at 931 Chicago would help provide context to what Wright saw when he purchased the land and built the home in 1889.

Jennifer Sandy, associate field director at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said her organization opposes the plan because context matters in historic districts.

"Buildings like 925 Chicago Avenue ... are the environment in which Wright formed his architectural vision, and to lose that context would impair our ability to understand the context in which Wright worked," she said. "Additionally, the property at 931 Chicago Ave. is significant both as one of the oldest homes in Oak Park and also as a place directly associated with Wright's family. Not only was it home to Wright's mother for several years, but Wright also may have been involved in the construction of additions to the house — the very additions targeted by demolition by the current proposal."

Richard Katz, an Oak Park resident, said he supports the proposal in large part because of the educational aspect of the center. "That's for all of us," he said, noting that "it's a way to educate not only our community but visitors to our community about Frank Lloyd Wright."

He said trying to use the building through adaptive reuse as part of the visitor center would create a false facade "similar to what Disneyland does."

Several of those who testified were residents living nearby in Wright homes — almost all of them testified that they were never contacted by the Trust prior to reading about the proposal in the newspaper. 

Susan Caudell, who lives in a nearby Wright home, said she is located on the Wright walking tour and has donated money to the Trust. She said residents must follow strict and costly preservation guidelines when conducting work on their homes, and the Trust should be held to the same standard.

"The Trust benefits not just because we're all together in this, but they financially benefit from the goodwill and the preservation work done by these community members who work within the guidelines," she said.


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