The Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission voted unanimously against giving a certificate of appropriateness, as recommended by village staff, to demolish the Drechsler, Brown & Williams Funeral Home, during a virtual Sept. 10 meeting.
"I think it still stands as a contributing resource," said Commissioner Jennifer Bridges.
Applicant Focus Development, a general contractor and development company, wishes to demolish the historic building and garage, located at 203 S. Marion St., to build an apartment complex under 12 stories in height, according to John Lynch of the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation (OPEDC). Focus has hired former Plan Commission chair David Mann as the project's architect.
"I just can't see how a developer can throw away this building from the late 1800s for a development that is not yet defined," said Commissioner Lou Garapolo.
The Historic Preservation Commission agreed that applicant Focus did not provide enough evidence to determine that the building and its garage do not contribute to the Ridgeland-Oak Park Historic District, in which the property is located.
"I don't think that the burden of proof has been met that it doesn't retain its integrity or its character," said Commissioner Noel Weidner.
The structure was built in 1881 as a single-family home for the Rogers family, who were early settlers of Oak Park. In 1920, the Rogers family converted the single-family home into apartments and hired architect E.E. Roberts as the architect to design the conversion. The Rogers lived in the home until about 1926 and then sold it to Earl Drechsler, who adapted it into a funeral home.
"A lot of the interior renovations made by Roberts, we believe, are no longer intact," said Courtney Brower of Focus. "They have been altered significantly over time."
In 1957, Drechsler added the large brick addition, which includes the portico.
"It's important to note that the architectural character of these renovations were not in keeping at all with the original house – kind of a colonial design pasted onto this Queen Ann-style house," said Mann.
Commissioner Sandra Carr did not believe the applicant provided enough evidence to determine that no part of original structure remained underneath the addition.
The building as it currently stands works best as a funeral home. Focus found it unsuitable to convert the structure into something else.
"The amount of money it would take to renovate the home into another use or incorporate it into another development is simply not feasible," said Justin Pelej of Focus.
Reconditioning the structure into offices would include implementing proper accessible entrances, bathrooms, proper fire suppression and more, according to Pelej.
"The rents just would not accommodate the costs associated with making those types of renovations," said Pelej, who did not provide any cost figures.
According to Pelej, that claim was supported by Charles and Lynne Williams, who marked the property through a large broker and indicated to Focus that they received no offers from groups interested in renovating the building or continuing its use as a funeral home.
"That frankly was one of the first questions we asked them," said Pelej.
Pelej also stated that funeral homes are associated with loss and mourning and don't "resonate positivity within the renovation-restoration marketplace."
That argument failed to sway Commissioner Lou Garapolo.
"I'm not convinced that anybody will ever know that this was a funeral home if it could be done in a creative way to create offices or some other use," Garapolo said.
He also stated he saw no evidence to lead him to conclude that the building deserved demolition.
Chair Rebecca Houze shared her belief that the structure and its garage serve as an "anchor" in the historic district.
"Those few single-family homes from the late 19th century which still are standing really serve as kind of anchors, so that you can really see and understand what that original phase of development was," Houze said.
The possibility of demolishing the historic funeral home still remains for Focus. If the representatives from development company choose to, they have the right to go before the Oak Park board of trustees for a hearing.
This story has been updated to include the full name of Focus Development.
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