Monday, March 23, 2015

A Forgotten Idea: Oak Park's "Motor Row"

Oak Park has a reputation for being keenly aware of its architectural heritage. Much of this image comes from the people that come to Oak Park to gawk at buildings designed by America’s most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. A significant number of people also make the journey to visit the former stomping grounds of author, Ernest Hemingway. Like other suburban communities around Chicago that developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we also have architect-designed homes and commercial structures of a remarkable quality and quantity. What makes Oak Park somewhat unique is that it has gone to great lengths to protect many of these structures, creating historic districts that cover almost half the village.

Even with all of this interest in architectural heritage, preservation isn't always at the forefront of the community’s mind when a new building project is being considered. It is all too common for homeowners to make significant changes to protected homes without regard to codified restoration standards. Sometimes this happens because of people’s ignorance about their home’s inclusion in a historic district and other times it is done out of blatant disregard for the preservation ordinance. Given how protected structures are sometimes treated, the poor treatment of non-protected structure isn't surprising. 

In a currently debated project, the Village (by way of the District 97 School Board) is proposing a new District Headquarters. The District 97 Administration building planning has been in the works for years. Though people seem lukewarm to the idea of a structure for the district offices, it is hard to argue that a new structure isn’t needed. After years of neglect, through deferred maintenance, the current building is in poor shape. Walking by this fortress-like structure at 970 Madison Street, it is easy to believe that the structure has been in poor shape since the day it was built.
The current District 97 Headquarters on Madison Street.  
The new structure is proposed on a site at 260 Madison Street, roughly one mile east of the current structure. The new site currently houses a storage yard and a modest yet nicely detailed former automobile dealership. The property was provided in a swap between the Village and District 97.

The vacant lot and former car dealership at 260 Madison Street. The future site of the new District 97 Administration Building.
A street-view of the future site of the new District 97 Administration Building.
Madison Street is not a pretty street and if you were to tell locals that they should pay attention to the architecture there, I bet you would get a hearty laugh out of them. It is a wide highway-like street that once housed many automobile-oriented uses. Over the years it became home to many of the official Village structures. Some are grand or public like the Village Hall and some not so slightly, like the various service and storage facilities for the village and school board. Because of this, many of the structures and the overall streetscape are not particularly hospitable.

There are plans in place for a future sprucing up of the street but the political will has not been there to move forward with them. In addition to these plans, many studies have been done to identify and plan the development of real estate and identification of historic resources along Madison Street. The notion of any historic resources along this street might seem outlandish. The collection of structures seems unremarkable and sporadic at best. One architectural highlight on the street is, no doubt, Eban and E. E. Roberts’ Foley-Rice Cadillac (FormerlyPackard) dealership built in 1923 but it has sat vacant since 2007.

The long-vacant Foley-Rice Cadillac Building on Madison Street.
Terra cotta detailing on the Foley-Rice building. 
In 2005, the Village hired Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc. to conduct an architectural survey of properties along Madison Street. The report outlines potential historic resources along the thoroughfare. It is a fascinating study that took a new look at the buildings there. The contemporary and historic photos in it, along with the historic interpretation of the place, allow you to see the structures on this street in a very different light.

The study suggests that the Village could capitalize on the buildings that had an automobile-related use, creating a historic designation of a “Motor Row” by protecting those structures. Historic designation might also bring tax incentive for future rehabilitation. To that aim, the study identifies 18 “Significant” structures and 3 possible “National Register” structures. Coupled with a comprehensive streetscape plan, this thoughtful “packaging” of the street as a historic corridor seems like a logical redevelopment tool for the Village to use to re-design the street, draw in new businesses, and create a more aesthetically pleasing thoroughfare. 

The Grove Apartments. Formerly the Comcast Building and Albert Kahn's Cadillac-LaSalle Dealership.
This is precisely what seemed to be happening. This past year, Oak Park’s Village Hall, completed in 1975 and designed by Chicago architect Harry Weese, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Recent developments like the Walgreen’s renovation of the 1922 Collins Building and the award-winning restoration and addition to renowned architect Albert Kahn’s Cadillac-LaSalle Dealership, directly across the street, are additional signs that a re-imagining of what that street could be was taking place.   
The Collins Building and the new Walgreens.
Oddly, in swapping land with the District 97 School Board, the Village seems to be acting against its own aims at celebrating the street's automotive heritage. 260 Madison, the structure that is now slated for demolition by District 97, is one of the "significant" structures in the 2005 Wiss Janney report. It was likely listed as significant because of it’s former automobile-associated use and because it was designed by a significant Oak Park architect, E. E. Roberts. 

Stone detailing on the Hills Motor Sales Building, E. E. Roberts, architect.
Detail of garage door and cartouche on Hills Motor Sales Building.
Street view of the Hills Motor Sales Building, future site of the District 97 Administration Building.
Given how the village is already moving to amass properties adjacent to the brutalist box that was acquired at their end of the land deal, it would seem that the stockpiling of large properties for potential sale is far more important than a comprehensive plan that capitalizes on the automobile aesthetics or history of the street. While racing to play developer, Oak Park is suffering from institutional amnesia, forgetting about the study they paid Wiss Janney to complete a decade ago.    

Some would probably argue that this is a relatively insignificant structure that the loss of it is an acceptable casualty because it isn’t really part of Oak Park’s “greater” architectural heritage. By moving in the way that it is, the Village is certainly not making preservation a priority in Oak Park and is perpetuating the seemingly popular notion that “since it wasn’t designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, it doesn't really matter anyway.” 

1 comment:

Jennifer Zinn said...

A very interesting post, Chris. In this country there is still an overall lack of interest in preserving and repurposing older buildings if they aren't deemed historically and/or architecturally significant. I hope that clear heads prevail in this example.