Sunday, August 01, 2010

Irony (pun intended)

Warning, this entry is long, rambling and obnoxious and probably means little to most people. 

Followers of this blog know that I had a bad week.  Actually, a lot of people in the OP and surrounding communities had a bad week.  We woke up last Saturday, many of us very early, to find flooded homes and basements.  In the middle of this mess, I was also party to another mess in the OP.  If you are followers of this blog, you also know that I volunteer and give far too much of my time to an organization called the Pleasant Home Foundation.  On Saturday morning, on my just-rescued computer, I received an e-mail about a “design” for a new fence opening at Pleasant Home that would be presented to the local Historic Preservation Commission’s Architectural Review Committee four days later.  A few days layer, with little fanfare, the openings were approved and soon pieces of a 107 year old fence will get removed.  This does not bode well for preservation in the OP but on the heals of the Commission approving demolition of a hundred year old home in a historic district just over a week ago, it does bode well for folks that want to make significant alterations to homes in the OP.  Gone are the days of the draconian HPC that frets over every chip of paint that falls from a historic structure.    

To most people, this kind of stuff really doesn’t matter.  Few people care about old homes, let alone care about the intricacies of how they are actually cared for and restored.  But to me, someone who had hoped one day to see remarkable Pleasant Home and its grounds completely restored and enjoyed by the surrounding community, it is a pretty big deal.  I also understand that I have particular tastes when it comes to how I like my old buildings.  If you follow this blog and see any of the work I have put into the wood and plaster on the Tiny Bungalow, you might get idea of where I am coming from.

This story actually starts a couple months ago when I was first alerted that the Park District of Oak Park, the owners of Pleasant Home and Mills Park (the historic grounds of the mansion), will be cutting holes (two of them) into the 107 year old fence to create new park entries.   The decision was put forth by the surrounding neighbors at a community meeting to guide planning and new construction at the park and a special meeting of the Pleasant Home Restoration Committee was set to discuss the design.  Unfortunately, I was out of town for this meeting but was able to listen by phone to parts of it.  It was clear from the beginning that this was a done-deal.  It was said that if members of the Committee and Foundation were so concerned about this issue, then we should have attended those early community planning meetings.  Well, I think that if any of us thought that it were in the realm of possibility that the surrounding community and the Park District would think that removing historic parts of the structure or grounds was a fantastic idea, then we surely would have been there.         

What is Pleasant Home?

Pleasant Home is the former home and estate of local investment banker John Farson.  Construction on it began in 1897 and it is one of the finest surviving examples of the work of Prairie School architect George Maher.  More so, it has the distinction of being one of two Maher homes that is open to the public and the only surviving Maher home that can truly be called a great estate.  Maher designed several homes like this for clients across Chicagoland and the Midwest but few were carried out on this scale.  Other estates like this include the remarkable James Patten Estate which is GONE,  the Magnificent Rockledge which is also GONE, the massive and incomparable Harry Rubens Estate (ALSO GONE), and the John Farson's Estate, Pleasant Home which is holding on by a thread and is but a shadow of it's former self.
Pleasant Home is a National Historic Landmark.  Does everyone know what that means?  It isn’t JUST on the National Register, it isn’t JUST in a National Historic District.  It is important enough to carry the same distinction as places like Constitution Hall in Philadelphia, The White House in Washington DC, the Empire State Building in New York City and a highly select group of approximately 2,500 other sites and structures scattered across the US.  It’s a big deal but maybe not so much for Oak Parkers.   You see, here, National Historic Landmarks are a dime a dozen and with ideas like cutting apart a 107 year old fence and seriously looking at trying to landmark highway exit ramps, you can also see that we don’t take the notion very seriously.

The Fence

The fence that is going to get cut apart was built in 1903 and was designed by George Maher for Mr. Farson.  It harmonizes with the house and all of its ornament, carrying design themes seen in the home into the surrounding landscape.  To call it a great fence, is an understatement.  It has an intricate design and at close to ten feet tall, it is awe-inspiring and monumental.      
I have to admit.  When I first got wind that they were going to work on the fence, I had mixed feelings. It’s great that ANYTHING will get done to the mansion and grounds to improve its current state but why the fence?  The home has no fire protection system to save it in case of a fire.  Since this ancient home with its antiquated wiring and mechanical systems is home to the local historical society, with its reams of books and newspapers, the idea of a devastating fire is hardly a stretch of the imagination.  The home also has no modern ventilation and mechanical systems so it and its contents are not protected from the drastic climate changes that occur in this part of the country.  Finally, one only needs to wander around the outside of the home to see that it is under constant assault from the elements.  I am not arguing that the fence doesn’t require much needed attention but the fact that the fence is given the highest priority, is puzzling at best.  I have images of waking up one morning and getting word that the mansion had burnt or fallen in on itself yet the gleaming beautiful fence still stands!!!  Fantastic.          
On top of the attention that the fence is getting, I was deeply disturbed at the notion that the Park District would be adding new openings in it as well.  This seemed to be an odd allocation of money and resources at a time when they (funds) seem to be stretched thin.  It also seemed an odd use of valuable funds on a property that seems to need it allocated elsewhere.  But waste of money and resources aside, it just made no sense to me.

The reasons for this were presented with great clarity and seemed to be beyond argument or discussion.  People in wheelchairs needed the holes!  Well, to that, I would like to personally thank all my wheelchair bound brethren for their part in ripping down part of something that has been standing for 107 years.  But there are other reasons as well.  There are fat and lazy people in the OP too!  The need for new openings to accommodate these people is completely understandable.  The walk to the main gate, rear, and side entries from remote corners of the park are taxing on typical able-bodied Oak Parkers so I can't.  I can't imagine what the journey does to someone with a little additional weight.  Oak Park actually has a yearly marathon where brave entrants try to run from one end of the property to the main gates.  It is quite a spectacle to watch folks try and claw and crawl their way the immense distance of about half a city block.
There is also great concern that the fence isn’t very hospitable and the park is not “welcoming”.  Well morons, it’s a fence, it's kind of in it's nature to be unwelcoming.   The nature of the thing is to keep people out.  I am in the great minority that thinks it is a beautiful fence and contributes to the unique character of Mills Park.  It was built as a private estate and to lose that looses a huge part of the character and history of the place.  I am also in the great minority of people that might try and come up with a more creative way to bring people with mobility issues into the park while preserving that character.  Making a change to the home and grounds just because you "don't like it" or want it to be "more welcoming" seems to be the first of a long string of dominoes that will completely alter the place.

Once the chunks are cut out, they will be placed on display next to the original fence.  I am sure it will look really nice and carefully thought out. (sarcasm)  It will be reminiscent of the stair hall at the Art Institute where you can gaze at and touch hunks of Chicago buildings that are long gone.  Some people think this is "cool".  I find it to be one of the most depressing spaces in the city.
I do wonder why the Park District seems to have gone to great lengths to keep that character at their “other” landmark building, the Cheney Mansion though.  Their entire fence was restored years ago without putting any new holes in it (why this place seems to get more attention and in a more timely manner than PH is beyond me but that is an entirely separate blog entry). Why the change of heart when it comes to Pleasant Home?  Who knows, Cheney is undergoing some re-planning right now.  Maybe they will be making Cheney more inviting with some holes of its own.  I sure hope so because there are fat people that live near Cheney too!  And why stop there?  While we're at it, there are a couple other organizations that could make some improvements that would go a long way to making their structures more "hospitable".  There this ugly brick and shingle wall on the south side of Chicago Avenue running east from Forest Avenue.  It really needs to go.  There's also a so called "church" across the street from our post office that could use a proper front door.  Here again, I digress.                

The Future of Pleasant Home and Restoration

Several years ago, the front gates and fence were renovated as a "pilot project".  "Restoration" of the fence there is incomplete and will surely remain that way lacking the fantastic globe lighting fixtures and original gates and it is doubtful that it will be taken any further even with the latest "improvements".  I wonder where the new fence "restoration" will stop.
There is a lot going on at Pleasant Home these days that isn’t reassuring.  In addition to the fence holes, they will also be getting a massive new tent to help bolster its wedding business.  Such is the life of historic homes.  Running it as a museum does not generate a profit so we need to find other ways to bring in the dough.  If making the home more inviting and amenable to large weddings is the goal, then the result seems to point to a partial restoration of the home and grounds at best.   This doesn’t bode well for future restoration projects.  The holes in the fence seem to be a manifestation of this goal and are just the beginning. 

Within the home the result of this line of thinking is also pretty clear, light fixtures will never get replaced to their original heights in fear that wedding goers will bump into them.  Additional furniture will not be replaced or rehabilitated as it will take up space needed for the hoards of partiers.  Partitions and casework that were removed years ago won’t come back as they would make rooms too small and not “inviting enough” for large gatherings.  In that sense, the notion of the Park District having a restored National Landmark AND a premier wedding venue are contradictory at best and since the road map seems set, it calls into question the existence of the Pleasant Home Foundation at all.  The fact that there is little appreciation of the place architecturally shows that the Foundation has obviously failed its educational mission to get people to appreciate Maher.  If the road map of "restoration" is set, then why do we need a cadre of the brightest restoration professionals in the country to help guide it?  It seems that if the desire really is to restore the home to some semblance of how it was when Maher first designed it for Farson, a radical change in thinking about how the home is used and thought about is needed.  
It was remarked at the presentation to the Architectural Review Committee this week that the "role of the Pleasant Home Restoration Committee was to restore the building to a private estate".  It is a sad and misguided statement but it is partially correct.  The intent of the Foundation and this committee is dedicated to preserving and restoring this 30-room architectural jewel. The Foundation strives to create a home which is a dynamic museum, a lasting tribute to Maher. Pleasant Home will provide exciting opportunities to learn about the history and architecture of the early 20th century expressed through the lives of the Farson and Mills families, the home's early owners, and architect George W. Maher.”  This must be true because it says it on the Foundation’s website.  Though it infers that the character of the restored structure and grounds would be in keeping with Maher’s initial vision of a private estate, a point needs to be made that it does not say anything about MAKING it "private".  On the contrary, the Foundation holds many public events year round.  The home's doors are open for tours and community groups use it often for meetings and events.  It is very much an open and public house.  The same can be said for the park that surrounds it.  Contrary to what the pre-Jabba photo above indicates, Mills Park is often jammed with people sunbathing and enjoying the grounds.    

There are not many places that have intact grounds and mansions designed by significant American architects, let alone any designed by an architects as significant as Maher.  One place that does come to mind is Newport, Rhode Island.  In the summer, the streets there jammed with tourists lining up to get a glimpse behind the walls and gates that surround the great estates there.  In the OP, this is pretty unique and there is something nice about the current state of the grounds around Pleasant Home.  The contradiction of a massive landscape retaining its private residential character yet being open to the public has its own merits.  Every park doesn't need to be completely open and jammed with activities.  A secluded and private garden setting is just as recreative as a baseball field or other active grounds.  This is an idea that seems completely lost on Oak Parkers.

The home and grounds need a lot of attention and it will be nice to see it start to get some.   It is just too bad that the attention it is getting requires for it to be partially dismantled.  


Anonymous said...


Crazy Nana

Anonymous said...

Even though you would most likely consider us the new age - techie side of the family, I totally agree with you on this. I have inherited an antique - type gene from my family, however small!!!! It is a shame.


Fargo said...

How sad that they're so clueless that they can't find a way to work with the driveway opening to create handicap access? It seems truly perverse to mutilate the impressive iron fence that adds so much to the character of the grounds. How pathetic that they intend to vandalize a rare surviving piece of some of Maher's most magnificent work. *sigh* Just another symptom of the dumbing down of our society....

Fargo said...

I happened to pass by there yesterday, and it reinforced my opinion. I hope that some miracle occurs and they don't make these misguided changes.