New Oakbrook Terrace Historical Society celebrates city's past
New Oakbrook Terrace Historical Society remembering, holding onto city’s past
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Since helping to create the Oakbrook Terrace Historical Society last year, board member Bob Shanahan has made a number of discoveries.
He's read his own birth announcement in "The Utopian News," an early edition of the city newsletter.
He's been excited when the historical society received 1904 photo from a man in Wisconsin whose grandfather's farmhouse was located where city hall now stands.
But the biggest discovery of all has been finding proof that the city-owned house where the historical society stores its artifacts is a Sears Roebuck Homart kit home built in 1950-51. Shanahan said architectural historian Rebecca Hunter of Elgin recently found the conclusive evidence of the home's authenticity in the stamped floor boards of the basement.
"There are only six documented Homart homes nationwide and she believes we have the most documented one," he said. "We're trying to put together a plan of how we can save this house."
The building at 17W245 16th St. needs saving because the city purchased it in 2008 with plans to demolish it.
Oakbrook Terrace Mayor Tony Ragucci said the city intends to break ground by the end of summer on a new police station that would be constructed east of city hall. The former public works building, a rental house and a house where the building and zoning department are located would be demolished for the project, along with the Sears Homart house.
Ragucci said the project could still go ahead if the Sears Homart house were spared, but it would be more expensive.
"We would have to put a retention pond under the new police station," he said. "It will cost the taxpayers more money."
The city council will discuss the issue at its Feb. 12 committee of the whole meeting when the historical society makes a presentation.
Ragucci said a decision will be made soon.
Being able to document a Sears Homart home is rare, Hunter said. The one in Oakbrook Terrace built by the family of former longtime city clerk Lorraine Fik matches the blueprints of another Sears Homart house. The historical society also has photos from the Fik family showing the house being delivered on a truck.
The Homart homes are not as well-known as the kit houses Sears sold before 1940, when it closed its modern home division, Hunter said. Sears got back into the house kit business after World War II, but destroyed the records of the Homart homes it sold. Many have been torn down or added onto and do not have distinguishing architectural features.
"We don't know how many were built. Many people are just now paying more attention to postwar homes," Hunter said. "Of course, I'd like to see the house saved."
Ragucci said one option for saving the house might be for the historical society to buy it.
"They have to decide if they can afford it," he said.
Shanahan said the society, formed less than a year ago, has partnered with local businesses to promote the group and has a membership drive going, but no big bucks.
"Our historical society has very little funds. It's really supported by the membership," he said.
The historical society's lack of funds doesn't dampen the enthusiasm of its founding members. A lifelong Oakbrook Terrace resident whose parents and grandparents lived in the city, Shanahan said the drive for a historical society got started when the city celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2008.
He and a couple other residents were tapped to go through boxes of photos to put together a presentation for the event. They ended up with 200 photos that the city put on DVDs, now available on the city website, www.oakbrookterrace.net.
"It was a great celebration, but we didn't want it to end there," he said.
The historical society incorporated in May 2012 with the help and support of the city. Shanahan, his wife, Debbie, and other board members have gathered boxes of photos, city council minutes, old city newsletters and newspaper clippings. They've made poster boards highlighting different aspects of the city's history, created a logo ("The Spirit of Our Past, A Vision for Our Future"), have a tab on the city's website and are building their own website, oakbrookterracehistoricalsociety.com. Their hard work won them a recognition award from the DuPage Historical Society in November.
"We know if somebody doesn't do this, the history will be lost," Shanahan said, pointing out that artifacts already were being thrown out as older residents die or moved away.
The artifacts help bring alive the rich history of the city of 2,300 residents. From a small farming community named Utopia, it grew after World War II and incorporated in 1958. The incorporation was controversial, Shanahan said.
"There was a lot of opposition to it because nobody wanted taxes," he said. "Many people thought it wouldn't last a year."
After losing a fight to neighboring Oak Brook about which community would include the property that became Oakbrook Center, Utopia changed its name to Oakbrook Terrace in 1959 to indicate its proximity to the soon-to-be-built shopping center
Seven mayors have served the city. The late Richard Sarallo brought major commercial development to the small residential community during his 25 years as mayor, but was convicted of income tax evasion connected with city business after he left office. His wife, Betty, still lives in Oakbrook Terrace and his son, Michael, serves as a city alderman. Betty Sarallo said she has gladly aided Shanahan in the historical society's efforts.
"There were so many papers lying around. I gave him lots of stuff," she said. "They've (the historical society) come a long way in the short amount of time they've had."
Sarallo was followed as mayor by the colorful and controversial William Kallas. Shanahan said the historical society is not focusing on the city's past controversies, but the hard work and volunteerism that built the community.
"I like to think that Oakbrook Terrace is the best-kept secret in DuPage County. We have the best of everything," he said, pointing to modest taxes, good schools, a community-involved police department and ready access to expressways.
Oakbrook Terrace also has been home to notable landmarks. The 31-story Oakbrook Terrace Tower on the city's east side lays claim to being the tallest building west of downtown Chicago to the Rocky Mountains.
Many area residents also have fond memories of Dispensa's Kiddie Kingdom & Castle of Toys, a destination for family fun from 1975 to 1984. Shanahan said the historical society is partnering with the Dispensa family to display a portion of their artifacts when the society has a location to call home.
"We get the most questions about Dispensa's Kiddie Kingdom & the Castle of Toys and the water slide (next to Kiddie Kingdom on Route 83)," Shanahan said.
In the midst of the commercial development, longtime residents say it's the small-town intimacy of Oakbrook Terrace that keeps them here.
Oakbrook Terrace Historical Society membership chairwoman Ava Berkshire moved to city 28 years ago after growing up in nearby Elmhurst. She's raised five children in Oakbrook Terrace and two of them have chosen to make their own homes in the city. Its size gives Oakbrook Terrace a unique history, she said.
"Everybody knew everybody. Everybody helped everybody. They fed each other's babies," she said.
Historical society board member Dennis Greco moved to Oakbrook Terrace about 12 years ago. Unknowingly at the time, he bought the home that had been owned by Dorothy Drennon, a longtime schoolteacher for whom Drennon Park was named.
"I love the city like I was born here," he said. "Everybody knows everybody. Everybody knows what's going on."
Shanahan said the historical society's aim is not to have a museum, but become a repository for residents and businesses with history to share. Anyone who joins the society before May will become a charter member, and both yearly and lifetime memberships are available.
Members also will receive a bag of promotional items and offers from local businesses. For details, call Ava Berkshire at (630) 833-0537. Donations may be sent to the Oakbrook Terrace Historical Society, 17W245 16th St., Oakbrook Terrace, IL 60181.
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