I served many years as an advisor for the Pleasant Home Foundation, and recall well when it was established to help preserve this rare 1897 Prairie mansion that is currently included on the list of National Historic Landmarks, that 2% of the most important sits in the nation.
I say “currently” because the building’s owner, the Park District of Oak Park, just ripped out its 125-year old Wisconsin white oak floors (3/4 of an inch thick) to replace them with whatever far inferior product is available in 2023. Other buildings have been removed from National Historic Landmark status for similar destructive behavior. My longtime colleague Steve Kelley discovered it and wrote the following:
“I was walking through Mills Park this morning and noticed the dumpster outside. Being curious, I looked inside and saw most of the first floor wood flooring that was clearly original and authentic cut into pieces filling the dumpster. I went inside and took some photographs and spoke with one of the workers regarding the scope of work for which I did not get a clear answer. I asked the supervisor why the floors were being torn out. He told me it was because they were “old – historic.” In my opinion this is a waste of materials and most likely in violation with state and municipal guidelines for treatment and care of historic properties. The original oak flooring was “old growth” wood that had been harvested from virgin forests in Wisconsin. This wood is far superior to any wood available today. It is not replaceable. The original flooring was in good to fair condition and could’ve easily been refinished for a fraction of the cost that is now being expended.
I am resigning from the Pleasant Home Foundation Board of Trustees and any involvement with the restoration committee effective immediately.I am asking this community what should be our next steps regarding this clear travesty to one of our authentic Oak Park historic landmarks.”
The local newspaper Wednesday Journal covered the controversy well. I think about all of the time I spent there, how careful we were to research and discover the history and materials of the house before we undertook any work, how a bevy of preservation experts were always involved in every decision for years and years. Now this. A National Historic Landmark treated like an amateur Home Depot project.
Twice I gave a lecture there comparing the work of George W. Maher and Frank Lloyd Wright, who had shared office space and who both discovered the new American organic architecture in their own way, Maher arguably achieving it here in 1897, three years before Wright’s first “Prairie” house. It has the horizontal Roman bricks, the flanking urns, the stained glass and overhanging eaves, the flow of one interior space into another and Maher’s own rich rhythm of repeated motifs in every detail
And it used to have real 19th century original growth Wisconsin oak floors.
What. a. gut. punch.
Everyone in every borough goes to the Met, right?
I was going to write a blog about the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, now that I have been on hand to witness its demise on two waterfronts, one saltwater, one freshwater. I spoke to fierce advocates, including a friend who was on the committee that selected the Chicago site south of Soldier Field. I wondered why advocates had not developed a clear vision of what the museum was supposed to be, and I wondered whether lakefront museums designed for international tourists ever really serve the local population. Continue Reading
Nothing to see here, move along, please.
In my last blog, I took the new leaders of historic Oak Park to task for forgetting why the Village is an attractive place and proposing the demolition of three nice old buildings (one of which definitely rates as a landmark) on Madison Street. The proposed demolition is part of a road-bending plan that completely redeveloped several blocks. Continue Reading
Oak Park Avenue in the 1970s
Well I have been back in Oak Park for over half a year now, and it just got listed as the coolest suburb in the Chicago area, in large part for its incredible historic architecture (over two dozen buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright – more than ANYWHERE, and tons more by other Prairie architects) and a rising restaurant and nightlife scene.
In the past I have written about the challenge of house museums. See House Museums and Ultimate Use. Almost a decade ago, the National Trust – which was basically created by Congress in the 1940s in order to receive houses and turn them into museums – started to discuss the end of the house museum as we know it. No more velvet ropes and stilted ossified stories of wealthy Victorians and the silver service they used when the Admiral visited. Continue Reading
Historic Preservation (Heritage Conservation) has done it again. Oak Park became one of the United States’ top ten neighborhoods, according to the American Planning Association, and it did it the old fashioned way: it saved its historic buildings.
The Frank Lloyd Wright and Prairie School of Architecture Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and made subject to local landmark controls in 1994 (notice the distinction, Kenilworth???) is the best place to live in Illinois, according to the planners. As the article notes, Wright and the other Prairie architects wowed them a hundred years ago and they still are. Must be some good architecture, no?
My graduate student seminar this Spring at the Master of Science in Historic Preservation program is focused on historic districts: their history as an expression of community planning and their evolution as an aspect of the historic preservation movement. It builds on my dissertation, which argued that the historic district impulse is about community control in a much broader sense than the more refined motivation of architectural and historical building conservation. Mostly I focus on the residential neighborhoods where the movement has been prevalent over the last eight decades, places like Greenwich Village in New York and Old Town in Chicago.
This semester we had the opportunity to survey two commercial areas in Oak Park, the South Town district on Oak Park Avenue near the Eisenhower Expressway and Harrison Street, the arts district Oak Park has been promoting just north of said expressway along its eastern edge.
I have been involved with the Pleasant Home Foundation in some fashion almost since it was set up in the early 90s by a group that included former SAIC President Tony Jones. I moved to Oak Park in the later 90s and had a regular gig talking to groups there every May, offering insights into the relationship of Pleasant Home’s architect, George Washington Maher, and his more famous contemporary, Frank Lloyd Wright. Maher designed Pleasant Home in 1897 and you could argue he achieved many aspects of the Prairie School idiom a year or two before Wright. (The name comes from the streets – Pleasant and Home – whose intersection it occupies.)
The house has the broad eaves, overhanging hipped roof and decidedly horizontal massing of the Prairie School. It also has urns flanking the entrance and is centered on the hearth/fireplace, a device Wright also used.
Well, from the tenor of the panel discussion in Oak Park this morning, the Fox News-style polarization of preservation has died down a bit. This is a good thing. A developer, a village president/architect, a local architect and two preservationists made up a panel that was distinguished more by how much they agreed than by the false “Preservation or Development” dichotomy that was set up.
The biggest laughs came to Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago who said the title “Historic Preservation: Too Much of a Good Thing?” reminded him of “Women’s Suffrage: Too Much of a Good Thing?” or “Child Labor Laws: Too Much of a Good Thing?”. He is right that preservation has to keep justifying itself. Continue Reading