Historic preservationists are feeling optimistic that Oak Park Village Hall will be saved from demolition since the village board walked back its original decision to direct staff to design a brand-new facility.
Now, focusing on renovating and modernizing the historic building, the village of Oak Park is planning to hire an architectural consulting firm specializing in historic preservation. The village issued a request for qualifications last week, which won the approval of local architect Frank Heitzman, co-founder of the advocacy group Preservation Oak Park.
“I’m pleased they did that; I think that’s a great idea,” said Heitzman.
Responses to the RFQ are due Sept. 13. The village board expects to choose the firm and enter into an agreement later that month. The RFQ was developed by Public Works Director Rob Sproule with the help of Village Planner Craig Failor and Susie Trexler, the village’s urban planner and historic preservationist. It was sent out to a list of firms that have previously worked in, and are familiar with, Oak Park, and also advertised.
“The intent is that the RFQ process will help determine which firm is best suited and qualified to move forward,” said Trexler.
Once chosen, the firm will work in collaboration with FGM Architects, the firm already contracted to carry out a structural assessment of village hall, 123 Madison St. The two firms will determine the feasibility of renovating the Harry Weese-designed building to make it more efficient, environmentally sustainable, and accessible.
FGM Architects has been involved in the project for several years, beginning when the village was only looking to update its inadequate police station, which sits in the windowless basement of village hall. A better police station is still very much a part of the project.
Furor and panic spread through Oak Park after FGM included demolishing village hall and building a new facility in its place among the recommended options brought forward to the village board on July 5. By far the most expensive option with an estimated cost of $118 million, the new structure would solve the issue of substandard police facilities while fulfilling the modern needs of local government.
The village board was initially excited by this plan and directed staff to proceed into the design phase, which resulted in considerable backlash from the community, upset over the prospect of tearing down a building on the National Register of Historic Places. Heitzman, who authored village hall’s register nomination, was particularly incensed.
“I was really mad because I love that building and it’s one of the best mid-century modern buildings in the Chicago area,” Heitzman said.
The public’s reaction prompted the board to quickly reconsider its stance. The board back-pedaled at its July 31 meeting, voting 5-1 to amend its contract with FGM, and committed to trying to preserve the building. The move won the board the approval of Preservation Oak Park.
“When the board reversed the original vote, I thought that was a really positive sign,” said Frank Lipo, local historian and Preservation Oak Park co-founder.
The group hosted a forum Tuesday night at Unity Temple, after Wednesday Journal’s print deadline, to discuss village hall’s history and its open government design concept, as well as opportunities to improve its operational deficiencies. About 170 invitations to the forum were sent out, according to Heitzman.
Longtime resident and architect Bill Dring, who served as project manager for Weese during the 1974 construction of village hall, presented it at the forum, as did architectural engineer Mark Nussbaum, who is widely known for designing the geothermal heating and cooling systems for several historic buildings, including Unity Temple and Pleasant Home.
A complete demolition of village hall could still be in the cards. The village board has not given express instructions to village staff to nix the idea entirely and no further directions have been made to staff since the board’s last meeting on July 31.
“We’re continuing to explore the original options,” said Sproule.
Village President Vicki Scaman, who did not attend the forum at Unity Temple, confirmed that the village hall could still end up being demolished, although that is not her hope.
“Anything is possible, but we wish to focus on the opportunities that may exist to rehabilitate the building,” she said. “The desire is to fully vet all options with the goal to have a functional space that meets our municipal needs for the next 50-plus years.”
Still, the historic preservationists in Oak Park remain hopeful that the Weese-designed structure can make it another half a century if the right investments are made to it.
“That building can and should be used for another 50 years,” said Lipo.