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Preservationists, West Chicago officials butt heads over future of historic home

Published: Monday, May 13, 2013 9:00 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, July 25, 2014 4:48 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Anna Schier - aschier@shawmedia)
Local preservation activist Frank Fokta stands in front of the historic home he is fighting to save.

WEST CHICAGO – Almost two centuries ago, a man named Joel Wiant moved to what is now West Chicago.

He owned a general store and raised his family there. In 1869, the year of his retirement, he built a red brick house where he lived out the rest of his days.

Today, the Joel Wiant House faces the possibility of demolition at the hands of the city. In recent months, the fate of the historic home has become a source of disagreement among community preservationists and city officials.

“I think there’s great opportunity here,” said Frank Fokta, a member of the West Chicago Historical Society.

Fokta assisted in having the Wiant House placed on Landmark Illinois’ 2013 Ten Most Endangered Historic Places list, which was released April 30.

The Wiant House is significant in part because it is the last remaining structure built in the Second Empire style in DuPage County, Fokta said.

Inclusion on the list will bring awareness to efforts to save the house within the West Chicago community and from professional preservationists at the state and federal level, according to Fokta.

After Wiant’s death, the house was owned by John Leedle, West Chicago’s first city attorney, until 1960. Throughout the past 50 years, the building passed through several hands before eventually going into foreclosure in 2011.

The City Council voted to buy the home for $260,000 in October 2011. Staff were directed to select a developer willing to take on the project, but despite extending the original deadline, city officials were unable find anyone who met the necessary requirements, said West Chicago Director of Community Development John Said.

Developers were unwilling to consider restoring the building without city subsidy, Said added.

When no qualified developers came forward, the city requested a Certificate of Appropriateness from the West Chicago Historical Preservation Commission in order to demolish the building. The commission unanimously denied the request.

City officials opted to appeal the denial, a course of action which requires a public hearing. The hearing, originally scheduled for Dec. 4, has since been granted a continuance on two separate occasions, first by request of the city, then at the behest of local preservation advocates. The hearing currently is scheduled for June 4.

Said suspects the lack of interest from developers is due to the cost of structural rehabilitation. The Wiant House has been empty for several years and has deteriorated significantly after previous owners neglected to maintain the building.

Said estimates that renovation costs for the house will total between $700,000 and $900,00. Post-renovation value for the structure would be approximately $320,000. The city does not have a cost estimate for building demolition, but it would be cheaper that renovating the structure, according to Said.

City staff are willing to hear reuse ideas, Said said, but none have been proposed.

“No one has come up with any sort of plans,” he said. “It would be great if people offered something constructive.

If the house is demolished, the land may become part of a mixed use redevelopment, as it is on the edge of a 14-acre parcel slated for similar projects, including a potential new city hall.

However, Fokta would like to see the house repurposed as a community meeting location, local business or residential space. Landmark Illinois representatives have expressed interest in meeting with city officials to discuss potential alternatives to demolition.

“At the very least, we want to see it preserved,” Fokta said.

The timeline surrounding the Wiant House is uncertain moving forward, Said noted, and depends on the outcome of the public hearing and subsequent council consideration.

According to Fokta, demolition could be approved as early as June.

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