For the second straight month the Riverside Preservation Commission declined to vote on a request from the Cook County Public Guardian to put an asphalt roof on the Coonley Coach House in Riverside. The coach house is owned by a 91 year-old-widow Carolyn Howlett, whose affairs have been handled by the public guardian’s office since May 2004, because she is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

At the close of a sometimes contentious meeting Aug. 11, the commission voted unanimously to again to table the Public Guardian’s request for a certificate of appropriateness that would allow the guardian to replace the original leaking red clay tile roof.


Commission Chairman Charles Pipal said that arrangements have been made for Michael Jackson, the chief architect of the Illinois Historic Preservation agency, to examine the roof on August 23, and that he did not want to take action before getting Jackson’s report on the roof’s condition.

The nearly century-old building, originally designed by Frank Lloyd Wright as the stable and powerhouse for the rambling Coonley Estate, was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970 and is also designated as a Riverside landmark.

“I think we need more information,” Pipal said at the meeting. “I want Mike Jackson to determine if those shingles are salvageable.”

Pipal in a separate interview that there have been offers of assistance by the state communicated to the commission by state representatives Robert Biggins (R-41st) and Robert Molaro D-21st) whose districts include Riverside.

“We’re looking at the possibility of state funding for at least a portion of this,” said Pipal on Friday.

However, officials from the Public Guardian’s office were visibly disappointed that the commission declined to vote on its application. During the meeting, Kathryn Balgley, the attorney handling the case for the Public Guardian’s office, and Cook County Public Guardian Robert Harris repeatedly asked the commission for an up-or-down vote on their application.


At one point during the meeting Commissioner Chris Robling made a motion for a vote to deny the application, but his motion died because no other member of the commission seconded the motion.

If the commission denies the certificate of appropriateness the Public Guardian can then ask for an economic hardship waiver that would allow it to replace the roof.

“We just need to move along,” said Harris. “Whether it’s approved or denied it’s going to be a long process that we have to go through. We’re already toward the end of August. We were hoping to have a resolution as soon as possible, so that we can make sure that we can get the work done by fall. We’re just asking for a decision.”

But Pipal and other commission members responded that it was still unclear whether the roof needed to be completely replaced or whether it could be repaired. According to Pipal, an examination of the roof just over a week ago by officials by several preservation groups revealed significant problems with the gutters that the Public Guardian’s proposal does not address.

“This has to be a comprehensive watertight solution before I can approve it,” said Commissioner Richard Ray.

Ray also found fault with Public Guardian’s application.

“It’s a poorly drafted document,” Ray said. I’ve seen certificates of appropriateness drafted by owners that were vastly superior.”

When Commissioner Ted Smith raised the possibility of obtaining a reverse mortgage on the home to pay for a authentic replacement red clay tile roof, estimated to cost around $250,000, Balgley responded that her office is planning to obtain a reverse mortgage, but will not be able to use that money for the roof work.

“We are getting a reverse mortgage,” Balgley told the commission. “A reverse mortgage is needed to take care of her person.”

Carolyn Howlett requires 24-hour custodial care, according to Balgley.

Officials of preservation groups remain optimistic that they can raise the money needed to fix the roof in a way that would satisfy the Public Guardian’s office.

“We have some very significant proposals that fall between the two extremes of prices that were mentioned at the meeting,” said Ronald Scherubel, the executive director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. “We’re talking about a substantial historic repair to the existing tile.”


Roofers from the James Mansfield & Sons roofing company of Lyons examined the roof and reported that it could be repaired, according Audra Dye, the program director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy.

On Monday, Dye said that her group and other preservation groups are in talks with the Public Guardian’s office to try get them to agree to repair the existing roof. Dye said that a repair to the existing roof would probably cost no more than $50,000, much of which could be raised by the preservation groups.

However the Public Guardian, while still talking with preservation groups, is leery of paying for repairs that might not last.

“We have this limited amount of money that we can pay right now,” said Harris. “It’s a one-shot deal.”

While tempers got a bit heated at times during the hour-long meeting all involved say they remain committed to working together to find a solution that will allow Carolyn Howlett to remain in her home of 52 years.

“There is no bad guy is this fight,” said Pipal.

The next scheduled meeting of the commission is Sept. 8.

“We cannot go into the winter with the roof is this condition,” Balgley said.