Kenilworth, Illinois is a lovely suburb on the North Shore of Chicago with the world’s largest collection of George Maher Prairie houses and a cornucopia of other architectural and planning delights. It also made the National Trust’s Most Endangered List because of teardowns. That is rare notoriety in a nation beset with teardowns. You gotta have something goin’ on to be one of the eleven most endangered sites in the United States.
So, the village came up with a clever plan: list the town on the National Register of Historic Places. This adds NO regulation to homeowners and provides NO protection against teardowns, but addresses the media embarassment. It also would allow ONLY THOSE HOMEOWNERS WHO WANT TO to take advantage of the Illinois Property Tax Assessment Freeze program. Upside without a downside.
A clever political solution, but it still encountered some of the most vociferous opposition ever. Why? Apparently they see the National Register as a first step toward local designation. While that could be true in Oak Park, it isn’t true on the North Shore. Wilmette listed two districts on the National Register and passed a law requiring a super majority of 75% of homeowners should Wilmette dare to try for local designation. Kenilworth has passed a similar law barring itself from pursuing local designation. Besides, it is a completely separate action requiring a completely separate political process. National Register designation offers NO SHORTCUTS to local designation. Getting local designation would still require the SAME political process it would without National Register designation.
But that wasn’t enough for the Kenilworth opposition who can see a slippery slope even on flat dry ground. (By the way, they need a cute name – when Winnetka went through this a generation ago, the opposition — funded by a major real estate developer — was called WHOA – Winnetka Homeowners Association, I think. Maybe they could be Kenilworth Opposition (KO), or Tenacious Kenilworth Opposition (TKO), or Kenilworth Protests Against Conservation (KPAC) or even Kenilworth Teardowns Embrace Liberty (K-Tel).)
So there was a League of Women Voters Forum with Wilmette preservation chair Kevin Kirkpatrick, architectural historian Susan Benjamin, myself, Village Clerk Bob Hastings and National Park Service jefe Paul Loethar to explain this. Kirkpatrick did the best, explaining that there is NO prohibition against demolition or alteration caused by National Register designation and NO cause-and-effect with local designation. He had a good analogy: Just because you go to high school doesn’t mean you need to go to college. And just because you want to avoid college, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t graduate from high school.
When I was asked why we didn’t talk about the downside of National Register designation I offered the only downside I could think of: “It would make it more difficult for the federal government to put an airport in the middle of town.” And that is true – it wouldn’t be impossible, but more difficult (and expensive). Upon reflection, I thought of some more examples. Remember, ONLY FEDERAL GOVERNMENT PROJECTS can be reviewed under National Register listing.
National Register designation will make it more difficult for the Federal Government to put any of the following uses in the Kenilworth Historic District:
- Public housing project
- Urban renewal (requires slum and blighted designation)
- New subsidized housing projects
- Interstate highway
- ‘Federal prison
- Military base or munitions plant
- Harbor or canal project
- FBI training facility/shooting range
- Federal office building
- Construction of FEMA trailer encampment for flood victims
Is KPAC pursuing any of these for their homes? If so, that would explain their opposition. Otherwise, their logic is whack.
Added thought: National Register would also trigger state review, so if the state were to try to place a state facility in the historic district, there would be a review. I will let the homeowners decide which state facilities have the potential of replacing their homes with other uses.