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The Desecration of Pleasant Home
On Friday Steve Kelley, a longtime volunteer for the Pleasant Home Foundation Restoration Committee and member of its Board of Trustees, informed the Preservation Oak Park FB group that the historic structure’s original wood flooring had been removed, cut into pieces, and thrown in a dumpster. When asked why this was happening, a site supervisor told Kelley it was because the floors were “old.”
Not to play devil’s advocate but let’s say these authentic wood floors were indeed too “old”. They can be sanded excessive amount of times, sometimes down to the groove where the surface is no longer stable. If patching up damaged up areas and other repairs had occurred here instead of replacing everything, remember that requires a good amount of skill and knowledge and can be prohibitively expensive. But after going to see the dumpster myself on Sunday, this too “old” argument doesn’t fly. The original flooring looked to be in decent shape and had a lot of life left. They could have been refinished, which is exactly what had been recommended by the Pleasant Home Foundation. Unfortunately the foundation only has an advisory role and they were kept out of the loop about the building’s maintenance work. This senseless act is a clear violation of public trust and irresponsible stewardship of the Park District of Oak Park (here are the five elected park commissioners by the way), which has owned the building since the home’s second owner Herbert S. Mills sold it to them in 1939.
The original owner, John W. Farson, was a millionaire banker who purchased the most expensive plot of land in Oak Park ($20,000) at the corner of Pleasant St and Home Ave (hence the name of the house). He hired architect George W. Maher to design an impressive 30-room mansion in 1897. While Pleasant Home’s imposing architecture and craftsmanship owes a lot to H.H. Richardson and Louis Sullivan, the totality of the structure follows Maher’s “motif rhythm theory” where he repeated a decorative element throughout the building and its interior. The American honeysuckle, shields, and lions’ heads are repeated in art glass, mosaics, and carved woodwork are all over Farson’s residence. Seeing it in a person *was* a rewarding experience. Now after this tragic event I’m afraid the house will never be the same again.
An important and early example of Prairie School architecture, Pleasant Home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and a recognized National Historic Landmark. The U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s standards for historic buildings clearly states: “The historic character of a property shall be retained and preserved. The removal of historic materials or alteration of features and spaces that characterize a property shall be avoided. Distinctive features, finishes…or examples of craftsmanship…shall be preserved. Deteriorated historic features shall be repaired rather than replaced. Where the severity…requires replacement of a distinctive feature, the new feature shall match the old in design, color, texture…and, where possible, materials.” Without a doubt, the Park District has completely disregarded these guidelines, going against the wishes and recommendations of the Pleasant Home Foundation (see their statement below). In my opinion, the Park District’s ownership should be eliminated as soon as possible. They have proven that they no longer care to protect and preserve this architecturally significant building. They can’t be trusted.
I used to live directly behind Pleasant Home and Mills Park so this news has shaken me up quite a bit. I’m angry just thinking about this so-called “decision” made by Park District officials (to say the foundation, board members, and local residents aren’t angry too is an understatement). The building holds a special place in my heart. Knowing that the workers just trashed old growth quarter sawn white oak from northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s UP, which is far superior to any new lumber available today, is an absolute disaster. Unlike decades ago when architectural materials were thrown out no questions asked, there are now a number of salvage groups like All American Reclaim, Reuse Depot, Rebuilding Exchange, Habitat for Humanity, etc. that would have been more than happy to take and reuse all this old growth wood. Were they contacted at all? But like I’ve already said that removal shouldn’t have happened in the first place.
Last summer the Pleasant Home Foundation launched the George Maher Society to help share the architect’s life and work with the wider public. It’s great news that a group of dedicated individuals are coming together to bring much needed attention to Maher, who deserves as much love and recognition as his colleague Frank Lloyd Wright. Something tells me what took place at Pleasant Home would have never occurred a mile down the road at Wright’s Home & Studio. In early 2022 I wrote about the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust’s demolition by neglect of a neighboring home they own (which they’ve since repaired). While the Trust’s dedication to preservation is a bit questionable in my opinion, the removal of original materials from Wright’s home would probably make local and even national news. What happened this past week is a step backward in preserving the legacy of not just Maher’s best known work but Oak Park’s architecture as well. Visitors from around the world come to OPRF to take in what can best be described as architectural outdoor museum. This act is a slap in the face to not just residents but all tourists as well.
The Pleasant Home Foundation has been in constant communication with the Park District since they found out the original plans were altered and went against the recommendations of the Historic Structure Report. The incident will be discussed at a board meeting on Tuesday night as I send this post out to the world. I’d love to know who the flooring contractor was for the project. Was this about saving money over working with someone who actually knows what they’re doing? We all deserve to know why and how this wastefulness was allowed to happen? Dumping 125-year-old lumber into the trash goes against everything preservationists believe in when they say “The greenest building is the one that already exists.”