Creative thinking needed on Coonley quandary


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Judy Baar Topinka

The Coonley Estate, that great Frank Lloyd Wright home along the river, is one of the premiere pieces of real estate in Riverside. But then, Frank Lloyd Wright homes are usually high up on the architectural lists of great buildings.

And so, I can understand why preservationists, architects and historians are all concerned as to the disposition of the half now belonging to Carolyn Howlett, a longtime and much-appreciated figure in the village.

It is all about the leaking roof, which, frankly, is part of a degenerating half of the Wright building, which is now split between two owners, Mrs. Howlett being one. Mrs. Howlett is now under the protection of the Cook County Guardian and, apparently, is no longer able to take care of her widowed and childless self.

The Cook County Guardian, dealing with public funds as well as a human charge, needs to slap a new roof on the building to keep Mrs. Howlett safe and dry?"that is his mission, both personal and fiscal. The cost is around $14,000. I can't argue with how he is coming at this.

But, I also know that to make the property "whole" and worthy again, a historically accurate roof is in order. The cost, however, is about $250,000?"a far cry from what the Public Guardian can muster or should muster.

Apparently, Mrs. Howlett, an artist, has willed her part of the estate to the Art Institute, a noble contribution to that esteemed art museum.

So, the question is: how does one get a historically accurate roof on the place while keeping Mrs. Howlett safe and sound, refrain from violating the public trust of the Public Guardian and still have something left, after all is said and done, for the Art Institute.

My theory is the reverse mortgage. Yes, I have heard that a reverse mortgage was considered but would only bring in about $200,000, not enough for a historically accurate roof. However, reverse mortgages, like regular mortgages only backwards, can be structured to fit needs as long as a bank or other financial institution is willing to work a client to get the job done. That not only goes for Mrs. Howlett's property, but for other properties in Riverside which might be in need of a cash infusion for a needy fix up.

My theory is that the Public Guardian, working with local preservationists, can sit down with Mrs. Howlett's financial institution or any institution which would be cooperative in order to work out a $250,000 lump sum payment to her from her anticipated estate. This would allow Mrs. Howlett to stay in her home until her death, which is what she hoped would be the case, while providing for the property and herself as needed.

Granted the Art Institute's ultimate reward would be lessened by all of this, but, frankly, until Mrs. Howlett is no more, the property is hers, and her welfare is most important. Once the building becomes the property of the Art Institute, the Art Institute can pay back the financial institution, keep and rehab the property or sell it outright, thus having enough money for the payback.

Now, I have not talked to a bank about this, but it strikes me as a workable compromise to what would now be an impasse?"an elderly woman's comfort and safety is involved and an architectural legacy is being compromised. I have never liked impasses, because creative solutions sometimes can be found if everyone gives a little or thinks outside the envelope. Sometimes, all it takes is asking around, getting all the information possible and then moving forward.

If a structured, reverse mortgage cannot be worked out, I must admit that I am a bit stumped. But again, if we all put our minds together on this and bring in our best minds, we should be able to make Mrs. Howlett's golden years a little less stressful, and find a solution to the village's and the Public Guardian's quandary.

I must admit, it is an interesting puzzle, but there is always a solution.

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