WEST CHICAGO – After a severe storm hit West Chicago in July 2012, resident Ron Meyers drove around the city among the wreckage.
Fallen trees were everywhere, blocking the street to his mother’s house and filling Reed-Keppler Park, where 163 were damaged beyond repair.
But looking at those broken trees, Meyers didn’t think they were lost, fated to become firewood or mulch. He saw something else: possibility. And luckily, so did the West Chicago Park District.
“The drive for me to do this was to promote urban lumber, to make people more aware of what can be used with trees in their backyard,” said Meyers, a cabinetmaker who owns a sawmill in Batavia.
Thinking someone might be able to find a use for the wood, park district crews collected and saved the longer pieces during the storm cleanup, said urban forester Phil Graf, who works with the West Chicago Park District.
The district’s expectations were realized when Meyers contacted officials about using the wood. Soon after, he called his nephew Jeff Perkis, an architect in the area.
Perkis was a recent graduate of the College of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago and contacted the school to see if any classes would be interested in a project to transform the wood into something new.
Paul Pettigrew, who teaches a class titled “Architecture and Furniture,” jumped at the chance to give students the opportunity to get out into the community to do work at a real site.
Based on input from Pettigrew and his students, the project was named “Out of the Woods,” which was meant to symbolize how the fallen trees would become furniture and other items.
“Just because it was damaged from the storm doesn’t mean that it’s bad wood. It can be used for more than firewood and mulch,” Perkis said. “You can actually do something with it.”
The spring and first summer semesters of Pettigrew’s class participated in “Out of the Woods,” with Perkis as the teaching assistant for the project. The 35 students created about 50 to 60 pieces to be sold or raffled off during West Chicago’s Railroad Days festival July 11 through 14.
Pieces included smaller items like spoons, paintbrushes, jewelry, cufflinks and train whistles. Chairs, tables, benches and shelves were among the larger items featured in the raffle. Students were instructed to create pieces inspired by the community of West Chicago and Reed-Keppler Park.
The project raised $2,300 at Railroad Days, to be split evenly between the West Chicago Park District and The Conservation Foundation, a nonprofit based in Naperville that focuses on environmental efforts and education in the area.
Remaining pieces are expected to be available for sale at the West Chicago City Museum, 132 Main St.
Only a portion of the wood from Reed-Keppler Park trees was used for the “Out of the Woods” project, and Perkis said he hopes to use more of the wood on another project, possibly one that will be open to the rest of the community.
But in the meantime, Perkis and other project participants are happy knowing they’ve already given a second life to some of those trees.
“With this project, you’re extending the life of the tree and giving the trees a second chance,” recent IIT graduate Francisco Miranda said. “A piece of furniture is something that is timeless.”