It all sounded so reasonable. Cook County Public Guardian Robert Harris asked the Riverside Preservation Commission to either accept or deny his office’s request for a certificate of appropriateness in order to re-roof the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Coonley Coach House in asphalt shingles.
The Commission’s approval is necessary because the now-dilapidated home is a local landmark. And, as is well-known by now, the Public Guardian is involved because the home’s owner, longtime preservationist Carolyn Howlett, is under his jurisdiction due to Alzheimer’s disease.
“We need to move along,” he said. “Just accept our application or deny it, that’s all I’m asking.”
And yet the Preservation Commission did neither, choosing to table the decision for another month after several contentious exchanges with Harris and his colleague, attorney Kathryn Balgley.
A simple yes or no may not seem too much to ask. When one considers the prospect of a frail, ill resident forced from her home preservationists seem to care more about a historic home than about her well-being, well, that’s enough to get riled up about.
But that’s not the case here. The commission’s refusal to vote was the correct choice.
If the commission votes yes, clearly, the asphalt roof will be a done deal long before winter, the irreplaceable original tiles most likely taking up landfill space. And the building’s future restoration will be that much more difficult and less authentic without the original materials.
But the Public Guardian is arguing that, even with a yes vote, the commission would still have ample opportunity to weigh in on what happens to the Coonley Coach House, including contractors and materials.
With a no vote, the Public Guardian would file an economic hardship request that would almost certainly override the commission’s veto eventually. Harris and Balgley tried to soothe commissioners’ concerns by pointing out that a denial of their request would generate a 45-day waiting period followed by a public hearing. And then a probate judge would have to grant approval before any work could be done.
The commissioners, however, were far from reassured. Although the Public Guardian has been reasonably cooperative, there is no assurance that any spirit of cooperation would continue once the commission either denies or accepts the Public Guardian’s application and the roof replacement process begins.
The commission knows this is their one chance to protect the building, and they have no intention of squandering it. The truth is, once they issue a certificate of appropriateness, the commission’s protective powers will have largely run their course.
And while the structure’s roof clearly leaks, there is mounting evidence that flaws in the gutters are also contributing to the home’s woes. Why should the commission approve a request that doesn’t address the gutter situation at all? The current document appears to be alarmingly incomplete.
Considering how much initiative and creativity the commission has shown?”drawing together experts from the state, the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois and the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, as well as investigating whether a combination of public and private monies could be tapped to do the job properly?”I have every hope that a true win-win solution will be forthcoming.
Carolyn Howlett has the right to remain in her cherished home as long as her circumstances and resources permit. And the Public Guardian is right to put her interests above all else, fighting tenaciously if need be.
But the Preservation Commission is also right to take the long view, to ask for enough time to explore whether the public interest?”and that of Mrs. Howlett?”can also be served by exploring all possibilities for repairing the home properly and in a timely fashion.
It seems a safe bet that Mrs. Howlett, who clearly treasures her home, would appreciate others fighting as passionately on her property’s behalf as she and her late husband did when developer Arnold Skow attempted to demolish the entire Coonley estate in the early 1950s.
All the Preservation Commission needs is a bit more time to come up with an ingenious solution that addresses Mrs. Howlett’s rights while protecting a local and national landmark. They were right to table a vote until all the questions about the scope of work needed have been answered.