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Proposed Wright center faces opposition

Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission unlikely to approve demolition, alterations to historic structures

July 12th, 2019 5:05 PM

925 Chicago Ave.

By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

The Frank Lloyd Wright Trust's plan to build a new visitor and education center next to the famed architect's home and studio got off to a rough start this week with a presentation to the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission.

The commission took no action on either of the trust's plans to either remove or demolish a historic home at 925 Chicago Ave. and alter another historic building at 931 Chicago Ave.

The proposals are part of a plan to make more space for a new 8,000- to 9,000-square-foot visitor and education facility. Representatives of the trust presented their request for a certificate of appropriateness for the proposed demolition/removal and alteration to the commission at a meeting on July 11, but commissioners roundly opposed both proposals.

In taking no action on either request, the applicant can request a public hearing, where the commission can officially deny the application. If that takes place, then the trust can appeal to the Oak Park Board of Trustees.

The trust also has the options of amending and resubmitting the proposal or withdrawing the request.

Celeste Adams, president and CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, said at the commission meeting that her organization has been working on the proposal for three years – since the trust purchased the residential building at 925 Chicago Ave. in 2016.

She said the center would serve residents of the community of Oak Park as well as tourists visiting the village.

Adams said the trust has learned that many people who have lived in Oak Park their entire lives have never visited the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, which stands adjacent to the 20,000-square-foot site on which the center would be located.

She added that the audience for preserving Wright's legacy is aging and the new center is an effort to reach out to the next generation.

"The role of education is paramount as we look to the future," Adams told the commission.

While Adams did give a brief rundown of the amenities – gift shop, education center, library, design studio, conference rooms and storage area for guests, among others – the meeting primarily focused on whether the alterations to the 931 building and proposed removal of the 925 building were appropriate in the historic district.

Lisa DiChiera, director of advocacy for Landmarks Illinois, argued that the house at 931 Chicago, formerly occupied by Wright's mother Anna, was built circa 1866 and is one of the oldest homes in Oak Park.

The proposal for that building would remove several additions to the structure. DiChiera argued that one of the additions was likely added sometime between 1895 and 1905 "and one could therefore assume that Wright was involved in its construction on behalf of his mother," she said.

"In our view, the loss of these wings would eliminate another layer of Wright's and his family's history on this property and his mother's and his sister's years of occupying the historic home," she said.

DiChiera also argued against the demolition of the 925 building, saying it would set a bad precedent for future demolitions in the village and that demolitions in such a historic district should only be allowed due to economic hardship or when the building poses a threat to the life and safety of the public. "Neither is the case here," she said.

John Eifler, a former board member of Landmarks Illinois and the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, also argued against the proposed demolition, stating that it is "disappointing to read that the organization believes the house is 'of no architectural significance' when it actually serves as a model to compare typical housing of the period to Wright's home and studio."

He said the current trust board consists of "members with little architectural and preservation training experience."

"As such, I believe they have missed the mark with their advocacy of this proposed project, as it presents a building that is inconsistent with its residential setting as well as the previous preservation goals of the organization," he said.

While testimony and letters to the commission largely opposed the project, the plan received some support.

Aberdeen Marsha-Ozga, chair of the Visit Oak Park board of directors, said in a letter to the commission that the center would "accommodate an array of special events, including lectures, receptions and other community and educational gatherings."

"A new visitor and education center will not only strengthen Visit Oak Park's partnership with the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, but also support our joint efforts to grow tourism locally and to serve the Oak Park community," Marsha-Ozga wrote.

Patrick Loughran, an Oak Park architect and AIA fellow, said he was "very excited about the opportunities the trust has for the site."

"I see this as an incredible opportunity to do something great in Oak Park," he said.

He noted that Wright likely faced similar opposition when proposing the design for his masterpiece Unity Temple. Loughran added that he was discouraged by the direction the commission was headed with the proposal. "It could be a missed opportunity," he said.

The trust appears poised to move forward with its proposal, releasing a statement on Friday, July 12, expressing "thanks to our many Oak Park neighbors and community residents who have expressed unqualified support of this visionary plan."

tim@oakpark.com