The Maywood Soldiers Widows Home, 224 N. 1st Ave., which was recently granted local landmark status along with the George F. Stahmer House, 704 N. 4th Ave, below. | Courtesy Trustee Michael Rogers and prairiestyle.com
Victoria Haas, the vice chairman of the Maywood Historic Preservation Commission, could hardly contain her excitement at a July 26 regular meeting, where two of the most historically significant properties in Maywood — the George F. Stahmer House at 704 N. 4th Ave. and the Maywood Soldiers Widows Home at 224 N. 1st Ave. — received local landmark designations by the village’s Board of Trustees.
Built in 1913, the Stahmer House is one of three examples of a high style Prairie Home in Maywood, according to a memo drafted by the Historic Preservation Commission, which unanimously recommended both buildings for landmark status. The Stahmer House was designed by William Drummond, a student of world-famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
The Soldiers Widows Home, a colonial revival building, was designed by local architect Frances E. Dunlap. Built in 1924 to house “wounded men returning from war,” according to a social history of the building included in its landmark application, the building represents a direct link to the modern social welfare reforms and institutions pioneered by Dr. Benjamin Stephenson, a surgeon and Civil War veteran. The building has been vacant since 2003.
“This is a huge building for us at a gateway intersection,” said Haas at a meeting earlier this month, before touching on the larger societal significance of historical preservation.
“The development of expressways and regional shopping (has) created a culture of cars and sprawls,” she said, referencing a book, For the Love of Cities, she’d recently read on the matter. “That’s made our communities lose our strong sense of identity as our suburbs became generic at best and shockingly dull at worst.”
Now that the two properties are designated local landmarks, anyone seeking permits “relating to alterations, construction, removal or demolition” of the structures will need to obtain what’s called a certificate of appropriateness (COA) from the Historic Preservation Commission, according to Chapter 158 of Maywood’s village code of ordinances.
“A COA is required if the building, structure or site wilt be altered, extended, or repaired in such a manner as to produce a major change in the exterior appearance of such building or structure,” the ordinance states.
An exception to the COA requirement is allowed if the permit applicant demonstrates to the commission that “a failure to grant the permit will cause an imminent threat to life, health or property.”
Some trustees were concerned that the new requirements might restrict the development of the Soldiers Home, which is located on prime commercial real estate at the busy intersection of Lake Street and 1st Avenue.
During a July 20 Legal, License and Ordinance Committee meeting where the issue was discussed, Trustee Antoinette Dorris asked how granting the Soldiers Home landmark status would affect a prospective developer’s ability to build on the site.
“I am proud of the history in this building (but) moving forward will definitely mean we’ll have to recognize this building in a different fashion,” Dorris said. “What if we get a developer who wants to pay $1.5 million for that entire corner at 1st and Lake St. and we’ve done all this to the building? What do we do? We’ve already had investors come here who aren’t interested in building around (the Soldiers Home).”
Maywood attorney Michael Jurusik said that potential development of the site would present a challenge, but noted that there are examples of developers working around the construction restrictions introduced by landmark status.
Some of those restrictions include ensuring that certain design elements, such as the proportion of windows and doors, the roof shape and other significant architectural details are compatible with the structure’s “original architectural style and character,” the ordinance notes.
Jurusik and others brought up the Walgreens located at the intersection of Madison Street and Oak Park Avenue in nearby Oak Park as an example of how developers worked creatively within those guidelines.
Developers of that Oak Park Walgreens preserved the facade of the 1920s-era building that houses the national pharmaceutical chain.
Tom Kus, chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission, noted that the Soldiers Home, which is also eligible to be put on the National Register of Historic Places, might be developed in a similar way.
And both the local and national designations would be major “economic drivers,” Kus said, since any developer seeking to revitalize the commercial property in a way that also preserves its architectural integrity would qualify for numerous local and federal tax breaks relating to the designations.
At the July 26 meeting where the board approved the landmark status, Trustee Michael Rogers said that economic development and architectural integrity aren’t mutually exclusive.
“Developers need to respect our history, culture and our town — all of them and all of the time,” Rogers said, adding that landmark status “isn’t something that handicaps a developer. It’s something that makes a developer care about Maywood.” VFP