North Shore Blues: Is the wrecking ball pointed at historic Wilmette home?

February 20, 2012

In what could be a stunning architectural loss, a beautiful Wilmette residence with ties to three prominent 20th century architects--including Frank Lloyd Wright--could be demolished by a potential new owner who inquired last week about razing the site for new construction.

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Lost would be the James B. Irving House, built in 1928 on a spacious tree-lined lot on Isabella Street and designed by John S. Van Bergen, a Wright protege who became an important architect designing homes in Oak Park, River Forest and along the North Shore. The parcel includes a smaller home built in 1920 at the rear of the yard--a former temporary residence built by Irving and designed by Wright's studio. Original drawings for the smaller house bear the name of Wright's draftsman: 33-year-old Rudolph Schindler, who would later become one of the most influential modernist architects of the last century.

"What gives is that the property is a double lot," said Marty Hackl, an expert and author on Van Bergen's work. "It is a small, old--'historic' is a better word-- house, and the market for upscale new homes makes it possible for a huge potential profit when the developer who bought the property tears it down and builds two large McMansions on it."

The photo below shows the Irving House with the smaller house to the far left. A garage sits directly behind the Irving House:

The possible demolition and the provenance of the two homes were outlined in an email correspondence last weekend--in which I was included--between preservationists, architectural researches, historians and a Wilmette village official. The home is under a purchase contract and the potential new owner who asked village officials about razing the site has not applied for a demolition permit. Preservation groups will begin asking the village to intervene this week.

At the root of the issue: Wilmette lacks a landmark ordinance with teeth to prevent demolition of an historic structure. And along the North Shore, the town is not alone. The string of leafy, old, affluent lakefront communities feature hundreds of one-of-a-kind pre-World War II homes designed by the finest architects of the day. But many of the towns have not wanted to enact laws to keep the homes protected from demolition, fearful such a move would hamper economic growth and encroach on property rights.

In Kenilworth, the issue is particularly acute. The village of 800 residences mostly built before 1950 has, in recent years, lost to demolition homes that were designed by celebrated architects such as George W. Maher, Nimmons & Fellows and others. In 2008, Kenilworth residents soundly voted down a referendum to place the village on the National Register of Historic Places, even though the designation wouldn't have curtailed owners' right to alter or demolish their homes.

"The mentality is, 'It's my property and I can do what I want with it,' " a Kenilworth resident told me as I took photos there last week of a 1901 stucco and stone Tudor home on Essex Road designed by Irish architect William Wallace Blair who also lived in the house after it was completed. The home, seen below, was purchased by Heritage Luxury Builders which last year sought permission to demolish the home and build a new one in its place:

Some Kenilworth residents--and even descendants of Blair himself--weighed in and the village officials stayed issuance of the permit until March 2012. Meanwhile, Heritage has been working with the village on a potential alternative that could "save" the home by building a sizeable addition on to it that would include an attached three-car garage, three powder rooms, a home theater, and six bedroom suites, according to an item in last December's Wilmette Beacon.

"There are many people, as you know who have not been negatively affected by the economy," Hackl said. "The upscale housing market on the North Shore has begun to pick up again and we'll be seeing a big new surge in tear downs."

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