The most interesting discussion to come out of the Feb. 7 Riverside Village Board meeting was not about the proposed residential zoning ordinance, which was mostly limited to lawyerly quibbles about definitions, but about the restoration of the historic water tower.
Extensive work on the historic water tower campus is slated to begin March 1 and last into September. The work?”which includes tuckpointing and the replacement of roofs, windows and millwork?”will require the temporary closure of the Riverside Historical Museum, located in the picturesque East Well House adjoining the main tower.
Safeguarding the collections is a top priority for all concerned. This includes the members of the Historical Commission, who manage the artifacts, and the village trustees, who are ultimately responsible for the village-owned collection. When it comes to protecting one of Riverside’s most valuable artifacts, though, the two groups differ widely.
At issue is the unique bronze, copper and glass chandelier that adorns the museum. Famed architect Louis Sullivan designed it as part of the estate for Henry Babson, one of Riverside’s most prominent landowners.
The chandelier, one wall sconce and some historic photos are all that remain in Riverside of Babson’s glorious Prairie-style estate, which comprised the land now occupied by the Circle neighborhood. The open land was gobbled up by developer Walter Baltis in the 1950s, although the main house avoided demolition until 1961.
Last December, Judith Balter, a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, visited Riverside. Upon learning of the planned renovations, she then wrote to Village President Harold J. Wiaduck offering to display the chandelier at the Art Institute until construction is complete. As is typical of such loans, the Art Institute would cover all costs of transport, insurance and conservation while the chandelier is in its possession.
To quote from Ms. Balter’s letter, “I am deeply concerned about the safety of your wonderful Babson House chandelier, which is very rare. Construction vibration and the potential for theft during projects such as yours are a cause for great concern. I am strongly urging you to remove the chandelier during this project and am offering the services of the Art Institute to help in this endeavor. … I would like to show the chandelier together with the Babson andirons and clock currently in our galleries. … We could also have our conservation staff review the condition of the piece.”
The Historical Commission’s response, led by longtime chair Suzanne Bartholomew, was lukewarm at best. She sent a memo to Wiaduck noting that, since the village will not be undertaking the extensive restoration work originally planned for the East Well House, the commissioners believe the chandelier can be safely left in place.
At the board meeting, Bartholomew suggested that perhaps a tarp or barricade is needed. She also noted that the chandelier has come through several construction projects unscathed and is hung unusually securely, making it more likely that damage might occur during the removal process.
The trustees remained unmoved by Bartholomew’s arguments. Polled by Wiaduck, each in turn expressed the view that the Art Institute is more than capable of safeguarding even the rarest artifact and, in fact, routinely ships irreplaceable art around the globe.
Furthermore, the opportunity to have the chandelier’s condition assessed by Art Institute staff is valuable in and of itself. One trustee went so far as to term the decision “almost a no-brainer” in favor of making the loan.
It’s hard to argue with the trustees, who voted yesterday morning to allow the loan arrangement with the Art Institute, on this one. While Bartholomew is clearly devoted to the museum and its collections, this devotion seems to prevent her from seeing the advantages of loaning the chandelier and the risks it would face left in place during construction.
I applaud the approval of this loan as being in the best interests of the chandelier. The board’s next task will be to ensure the safety of the rest of the collections, which will likely mean a temporary move from the museum, with or without the support of the Historical Commission.