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UPDATED: Conservancy, National Trust Oppose Demo for Wright Home Visitor Center

Updated Sept. 6, 2019

The Frank Lloyd Wright Trust issued a statement that they will not exercise their option to appeal the decision of the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission, but instead will reconsider its plan.

Updated Aug. 29, 2019

At a special meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 27, the Village of Oak Park’s Historic Preservation Commission voted unanimously not to issue the Certificates of Appropriateness to remove additions on the east and south elevations of 931 Chicago Avenue (Anna Wright’s House) and to move or demolish the house at 925 Chicago Avenue in the Frank Lloyd Wright-Prairie School of Architecture Historic District.

Conservancy Executive Director Barbara Gordon and Board Vice President of the Board Ron Scherubel attended the meeting, where Gordon testified before the Commission in opposition of the Certificate of Appropriateness application. They were joined by other preservation-minded Oak Park residents and representatives from Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust for Historic Preservation who spoke in opposition.

Gordon stated, “One of the most important tools available to all preservation organizations are the protections afforded by the preservation ordinances, districts, and regulations adopted by local historic preservation commissions. They are the first line of defense protecting historic properties and neighborhoods. It cannot be over emphasized how important these local historic preservation tools are to those of us whose mission it is to preserve historic buildings and neighborhoods. We must be able to rely on their significance and enforceability as written. If they are inconsistently enforced, or can be easily ignored or circumvented by Certificates of Appropriateness, preservation efforts will have lost one of the fundamental tools of the whole preservation movement.

“Wright buildings are significant unto themselves, but they are also significant for the places in which they are located. Demolishing or moving these two houses in question, either partially or whole, would undermine the very concept of a historic district. Since the 1930s, such places have rested on the premise that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There are inevitably varying levels of historic significance within a historic district, but such districts in the United States have no designated hierarchy among their constituent parts. All levels of significance are essential to gain a full sense of the place. Chipping away at this heritage incurs far more damage than simply the loss of a building or two.”

Gordon also pointed out that a portion of this Historic District forms part of the buffer zone for the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Unity Temple. The importance of the surrounding context is an integral component of the World Heritage listing, which is codified in its buffer zone. The strength of Unity Temple’s buffer zone relies directly on the strength of the enforcement of Oak Park’s historic preservation ordinance.

The Conservancy strongly urged the Commission, and Village Board, not to dilute its effective preservation ordinance by issuing a Certificate of Appropriateness in this situation.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, which owns the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, can appeal this decision to the Oak Park Village Board if they choose.

To undermine the strength of this landmark district puts more than a dozen Wright-designed buildings at risk.

In June 2019, the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, which stewards the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park and Robie House in Hyde Park, unveiled plans for a new visitor and education center adjacent to the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio. The announcement gained national attention. Renderings of the proposed project can be seen at John Ronan Architects.

While the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy applauds the Trust’s goal to enhance the visitor experience at the Home and Studio, it is opposed to the demolition of all or portions of Trust-owned buildings currently on the site of the proposed visitor center.

The Conservancy has forwarded a letter to the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission and the Village Board stating its position. These buildings, located at 935 and 931 Chicago Avenue, were standing when Wright designed the first portions of his house on Forest Avenue. They give an important context for understanding the uniqueness of Wright’s designs in that period.

The Trust has applied for certificates of appropriateness from the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission that would allow the demolition of all of 925 Chicago Avenue. Its application for a certificate of appropriateness for 931 Chicago Avenue would allow the demolition of portions of that house that were added when the house was owned by Wright’s mother, during the time Wright was living and working next door at the Home and Studio. It is not known for sure if Wright was involved in the construction of the additions, but it is possible. Demolition of these portions would remove evidence for further study.

The proposed demolitions would also seriously undermine the strength of the Frank Lloyd Wright-Prairie School of Architecture Historic District, of which the threatened buildings are contributing resources. This landmark district is the only form of legal protection covering more than a dozen of the Wright-designed structures in Oak Park.

Local historic preservation commissions, ordinances, districts and regulations are extremely important to those of us whose mission it is to preserve historic buildings and neighborhoods. We must be able to rely on their significance and enforceability as written. If they are inconstantly enforced, as would be the case if these certificates of appropriateness were granted, preservation efforts will have lost one of the basic tools of the whole preservation movement.

In addition, a portion of the Frank Lloyd Wright-Prairie School of Architecture Historic District forms part of the buffer zone for the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Unity Temple. The importance of the surrounding context is an integral component of the World Heritage listing, and this importance is codified in its buffer zone. The strength of Unity Temple’s buffer zone relies directly on the strength of Oak Park’s historic preservation ordinance.

While the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust has suggested that moving the affected buildings would be its first preference and that demolition would be the last resort, the Conservancy has always taken the position with Wright-designed buildings that moving is the last resort and demolition is not an option. We believe that the same position applies to these structures.

For these reasons, the Conservancy joins with other preservation advocacy organizations—including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Landmarks Illinois and a coalition of Oak Park preservationists, in opposing the proposed move or demolition of these two historic buildings, and urges the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust to revise its plans for its new visitor center to retain the historic portions of both of these buildings that give context to Wright’s Home and Studio.

Posted on August 23, 2019

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