Lake Ellyn Boathouse might be restored to its heyday
Ask anyone who grew up in or near Glen Ellyn, and they're bound to recall childhood stories of lacing up their ice skates in the Lake Ellyn Boathouse and then gliding out on the frozen pond with friends.
It's a tradition that began in earnest 75 years ago, when the one-story building, originally called the "Recreation House," was built to serve as a warming shelter for skaters.
Younger generations have carried on the local tradition — when the weather cooperates — but the nostalgia might be lacking today.
As additions and renovations were made over the years, many of the building's original finishes were replaced, metal entrance doors and plastic windows added, and a limestone fireplace covered up.
Glen Ellyn Park District officials went so far as to propose a modern expansion of the boathouse to use for large-scale private events — but the idea was roundly rejected in a 2006 referendum.
Consultants hired last year to evaluate the future of the boathouse and surrounding park recommend a renovation of the iconic property — by turning back the clock.
A 75-page master plan for Lake Ellyn Park suggests restoration of the boathouse's historical features with an eye toward earning the structure a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. And visitors, including ice skaters, just might feel like they went back to the future.
"We're basically bringing this building back so this can be a place where children and adults can come, so they can understand what Lake Ellyn was like in the 1930s," said Jonathan Boyer, principal of Farr Associates, an architectural design firm hired to develop a vision for the boathouse and park.
The land on which the historic park now sits has long been associated with leisure.
In the late 19th century, visitors were drawn to a 100-room resort hotel that overlooked the lake — a popular destination until 1906, when it met its demise in a fire.
Boyer, along with officials from the park district and Conservation Design Forum, an ecological design firm, presented the master plan to residents last month during a meeting at the boathouse.
It followed seven months of sessions with stakeholders and residents to garner suggestions for improving the park, north of the village's downtown, next to Glenbard West High School and bordered by a stately residential area.
Today, the park board members will consider formally adopting the plan, which also recommends improvements to pathways, parking, landscaping, water quality and the addition of a playground.
Initial estimates put the cost between $1.2 million and $2 million.
"The spirit of this plan is one of restraint, balance and polishing this gem," said David Yocca, a landscape architect and planner with CDF.
"We're going to deal with the boathouse in a historically sensitive manner."
Exactly how much of the plan will be implemented and when is unclear — much of it depending on finding funding at a time when extra dollars are hard to come by. Those discussions by the park district board and staff are expected to take place in the coming year.
"We certainly recognize the fact this is a 100-year-old park that's had fairly minimal work done to it over 100 years, and if we want to have another successful 100 years, I think the feeling is we have to invest back into the property," said Dave Harris, the park district's executive director.
A 'miracle' park
The 25-acre Lake Ellyn Park, which surrounds the 10-acre lake, is a community gathering spot in the affluent community of 27,000. It's home to the annual Cardboard Boat Regatta, launching point of the village's popular Fourth of July fireworks show, and site of jazz and arts festivals.
In 1892, the Glen Ellyn Hotel opened atop Honeysuckle Hill, advertised nationwide as a summertime resort spa near natural springs considered to have healing properties.
It overlooked Lake Glen Ellyn, created just three years earlier by residents who dammed a stream through the valley.
But when the hotel burned down in 1906 after being struck by lightning, its property — which encircled the lake — was subdivided into individual lots intended for homes.
Many of the lots remained unsold until the local school district purchased most of them in 1919.
The district kept a portion on the southern end of the lake to build its new high school — what became Glenbard West — and deeded over the lake and the land on the north, east and west sides to the village.
On Oct. 25, 1919, after voters said no twice, they agreed to establish a park district. One of the first tasks of the new governmental agency was to dedicate the land surrounding the lake as a park.
Ron Aubrey, a Glen Ellyn park board commissioner who has been researching the history of the park district for a website, thinks it's possible the land didn't sell due to the stock market panic of 1907, followed by World War I.
"When I read the history of Lake Ellyn, it's a miracle this property exists today as a public park," Aubrey said.
During the Great Depression, the establishment of President Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration commissioned thousands of public works projects designed to put the unemployed to work and spur economic growth.
The boathouse was one such project, designed by architect Frederick G. Walker in 1935 and built two years later at a cost of $32,242 — about 36 percent of which was funded by the WPA, according to a history of the boathouse by the Citizens for Glen Ellyn Preservation.
The one-story building was designed in the "minimal traditional" architectural style, the preservation group says, and consisted of a large meeting room, fireplace, kitchen and bathrooms.
Three updates have been made to the building: an addition to the kitchen in 1959, expansion of the mechanical area and covering of the original limestone fireplace in the 1960s, and modifications to the roof, doors and mechanical systems in 1990 that changed many of the building's historic elements, according to the park district master plan.
Boyer, the design consultant, suggests several changes to "bring back the feeling of a historic building." Modifications include:
• Removing the lowered ceiling that had been installed to accommodate fans and mechanical systems, and exposing the original vaulted ceiling and fireplace. Duct work would be removed and a small-diameter energy efficient system installed.
• Replacing the plastic windows with double-hung windows.
• Replacing the metal and "utilitarian" doors with wooden ones that have original handles and thresholds.
• Demolishing the building's west addition and reconfiguring restrooms.
• Restoring the original color of the building.
• Reconfiguring the shape of the existing dock by creating curvature instead of angles, which "jars with the simple geometry of the original building," Boyer said.
Renovations to the boathouse alone are estimated at $581,000 to $820,000 and could take up to a year to complete.
Officials say in the next few months they plan to set priorities for the projects, potentially splitting them into phases, and then address funding options, which could include pursuit of historic preservation grants and establishment of a "Friends of Lake Ellyn Park" nonprofit fundraising group.
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