(A 2012 photo of the Soldiers’ Widows Home by David Shalliol. Below, a photo of the building’s grand porch taken by Chris Payne. Both photos were pulled from the Landmarks Illinois study presented at the August 13, LLOC meeting).
MAYWOOD — At a Legal, License and Ordinance Committee (LLOC) meeting last night, the Village Board considered a proposal from Oak Park-based Heitzman Architects to shepherd the process of rehabbing the front porch of the Soldiers’ Widows Home at 224 North First Avenue in Maywood.
According to the proposal letter, Heitzman has offered “to examine the porch construction on all levels, determine what members need to be repaired or replaced, measure, produce detailed drawings and specifications for [the Village’s] review, advertise for bid, submit the approved documents for competitive bids from general contractors [and] administer the bidding process,” among other tasks. Heitzman’s bid is $7,500.
The Georgian Revival building was designed by renowned Maywood architect Francis E. Dunlap and built in 1924 to house the widows and children of Union Civil War veterans. In the late 1970’s, after the last of its Civil War-related clientele had either died or moved out, the building was re-purposed to house the mentally ill. In 2003, however, a kitchen fire resulted in the building’s vacancy and it’s been vacant ever since.
In 2008, the Village of Maywood purchased the building and the two lots adjacent it, but the Village has not yet been able to land any successful development; and local preservation enthusiasts are concerned that what development the Village does land may threaten the Home’s very existence.
Last year, InSite Real Estate Development offered to purchase the two empty lots adjacent the Widows Home for the appraised value of $450,000. InSite had planned to develop a retail and banking center, with a branch of Hinsdale Bank and Trust as the development’s anchor tenant. However, the development fell through after squabbling among the Board of Trustees, with some trustees preferring an alternative development proposal presented by Granite Realty. The Granite proposal entailed developing all three lots–the Widows Home included–and might also have entailed tearing down the historically significant structure.
In 2012, the Widows Home was listed among the ten most endangered historic places in Illinois by Landmarks Illinois, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the preservation of historically valuable buildings. The Landmarks Illinois website stated at the time that the “Maywood Historic Preservation Commission is now concerned that the building may be demolished to make way for new development rather than incorporating this piece of Maywood’s history into the revitalization of an important intersection at 1st Avenue and Lake Street.”
In the more than five years since the Village has been responsible for the site, a minor urban jungle has developed at the corner of 1st and Lake, with the Widows Home appearing less like a marketable piece of real estate than the relic of an abandoned past and a major eyesore in a highly visible location. If properly developed, however, the site could constitute a major commercial opportunity for Maywood.
But the responsibility for making the site attractive to prospective developers has largely shifted from the Village itself to local civic organizations and commissions, such as Neighbors of Maywood Community Organization (NOMCO), the Maywood Historic Preservation Commission and the Beautification and Environmental Commission, which have deployed teams of volunteers to do things like paint the exposed cardboard covering the building’s window slots. The Heitzman proposal may be the most serious, sustained attention the Village has given the building since it bought it in 2008.
“[The plan is] is to do the same thing we would ask any citizen [or business] to do with their own property, which is to get it looking decent,” said Trustee Michael Rogers, an architect by trade and the Board’s most vocal proponent of the Heitzman proposal. “If this property were someone else’s they would be receiving citations. We need to practice what we preach [and] move forward and set an example. When you do that, then you begin to get the interest.”
“We have to set an example,” said Mayor Perkins, mirroring Trustee Rogers’s sentiments. “We’ve got the opportunity to clean [this property up]…We’ve got to lead from the front [and] take care of the property…It looks bad, especially on our main street.”
According to a study presented at last night’s meeting by Lisa DiChiera, Director of Advocacy for Landmarks Illinois, despite it’s deteriorated condition, the building is structurally sound and only needs minor repairs. The study, which was produced pro bono by Landmarks Illinois, Sullivan, Goulette & Wilson Architects, and Vinci Hamp Architects, comprised a long-term, comprehensive plan for the entire three-plot site. It recommended that the Soldiers Widows Home be converted into an “office or medical office building” that could be integrated into a larger redevelopment site that would encompass all three plots on the corner of 1st Avenue and Lake Street.
The site’s proximity to Loyola University Medical Center, Rush Oak Park Hospital, Gottlieb Health and Fitness Center and Westlake Community Hospital Center was a major reason behind the study’s recommendation. DiChiera noted that the building’s historic character may translate into an economic advantage for luring prospective developers.
The Widows Home is eligible to be listed both as a local landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places. If it can land either designation, potential developers could utilize a Cook County Class-L Property Tax Incentive or a Federal Historic Tax Credit, respectively, to support their rehabilitation efforts.
Tom Kus, the chairman of the Maywood Historic Preservation Commission, channeled the passions of many residents who consider the Soldiers’ Widows Home more than a building to be developed, but a cultural node connecting the Village’s past, present and future ambitions.
“[This building] is only one among a few left in the country that were dedicated to [housing widows from the Civil War],” he said. “A lot of people in this community have had a significant attachment to [the Widows Home]. I’ve been here for 14 years and I’ve heard people lobbying to do something with this building. It is a magnificent buildilng. I live in the neighborhood over there and I’ve caught people taking pictures and I’ve stopped and talked to them…they find the building fascinating.” VFP
THE THREE SITE PLANS PROPOSED BY THE LANDMARKS ILLINOIS STUDY: