Imagine a community recreation center in downtown Riverside, nestled next to the main fire station and hovering over the banks of the Des Plaines River, a wall of windows giving those inside sweeping views of the waterway and the forest on the opposite bank.

For the past six weeks, students from Triton College’s architecture department have been imagining exactly such a building – and three other similar ones – as part of a class taught by architect Garrett Eakin.

On Dec. 8, all four designs were presented to a dozen or so residents and government officials, giving a glimpse of just what might be possible if the village ever decides to move forward with renovating the old Youth Center and former public works garage next to the Riverside Township Hall and public safety offices.

“It gets you to thinking,” said Village President Michael Gorman, whose overtures to Triton College last year to forge closer ties to that institution resulted in the Youth Center site becoming a laboratory for Eakin’s architecture students.

In the summer of 2010, Gorman reached out to Triton President Patricia Granados and offered the village as a resource for the college.

“Initially we were looking at their horticulture department to use Riverside as an outdoor classroom,” said Village Manager Peter Scalera. But one thing led to another and Eakin contacted Gorman about using Riverside as a palette for his students.

“After chatting with Mike, I was intrigued by the whole history of Riverside and what’s happening now,” said Eakin. “The downtown could probably use a shot in the arm.”

While the class produced four different solutions for the old Youth Center site, at this point it was just an academic exercise. While Riversiders have talked for years about redeveloping the Youth Center site for another use, village government has not moved to act.

But such a community center is needed, says, Susan Casey, the chairwoman of the Riverside Parks and Recreation Commission.

“A youth center, and one with a gym, is so desperately needed in this town,” said Casey, who attended the Dec. 8 presentation by the Triton students. “I’m not sure even in a good economy where we’d get the money, but I felt kind of hopeful seeing this. … What [the students] produced was really impressive, but I don’t know where it’s going.”

Gorman said Trustee Mark Shevitz has been investigating the costs involved in renovating the site, but no formal report has come from that investigation to date.

“This was initiated prior to embarking on our partnership with Triton which first started with their Horticultural Department,” Gorman wrote in a response to emailed questions about whether the Triton exercise might possibly lead to a wider discussion of the Youth Center site and whether he felt such a large-scale project was possible.

“Such an investigation is necessary to determine if this project holds the prospect of being ‘realistic or possible’ at any point in the future. Funding for any reuse has been and will continue to be the most significant hurdle.

“The benefit to the village of the presentation of the Triton students is to stimulate discussion and help in visualizing the possibilities.”

Eight Triton students worked in groups of two, designing a building that included a full-size gym, locker rooms, restrooms, classrooms, a refreshment area, kitchen, an elevator, a rock-climbing wall and more.

Three of the four contemplated underground parking, while one design included a green roof with a spiraling observation deck and playground equipment for children. All of the designs were two stories high and attempted to blend into the village by using muted colors of nearby buildings, such as the township hall.

“Architecture is a public art and the students need to know they’re not designing for themselves, the earlier the better,” said Eakin. “They’re designing in context and this is such a wonderful and unique context with such validity and elegance.”

Designing a large building for the Youth Center site was a real challenge because of its odd shape and topography, said Eakin, who writes a monthly column on architecture for Wednesday Journal of Oak Park & River Forest, a sister paper to The Landmark.

“I liken that site to a European city,” said Eakin. “In London, for example, nothing is square. Working in Europe is quite a different story and makes it much more difficult to compose.

“On that site you have every angle you can possibly make, it slopes in two different directions, you have the fire department, the police department and that oh-so-delicate bridge. It’s a big-box structure – there’s no way to change that. The [designs] that stayed with smaller program elements were much more successful.”

Site has deep roots in Riverside history

The Triton College Architecture Department isn’t the first group to see the site where the old Youth Center stands as a perfect place for a public building. In fact, the site was a prominent one during Riverside’s earliest years.

Visitors to the village could stay at the Riverside Hotel, perched on that site overlooking the river during the late 19th century and into the 20th. The old hotel was demolished in 1945, according to Trustee Lonnie Sacchi, who has been delving deep into Riverside’s history as he’s been researching information for an upcoming Arcadia book.

In the mid-1950s, Riverside expanded its facilities by building a garage and a one-story workshop area on the foundation of the old hotel. The Youth Center, said Sacchi, was the result of a competition among high school students.

A Fenwick High School student and Riverside resident, Paul Straka, won the contest and received a $100 savings bond for his effort.

“I saw a little ad in the paper,” said Straka, now 72, in an interview last week at his architecture office in Brookfield. Straka would graduate from Fenwick and get his degree in architecture from the University of Illinois. He later worked for Chicago architect Edward Dart, who designed Water Tower Place on Michigan Avenue.

Architecture ran in the family. Straka’s brother, Edward, studied architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology under Mies van der Rohe.

The Youth Center as built didn’t bear much resemblance to Straka’s design. But before it was built, it caused a bit of consternation in town, not so much for its rather severe design, but for what it was.

“There was a petition to try to stop it,” said Sacchi. “People were afraid of riots.”