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Article updated: 5/5/2013 7:53 AM

Future in doubt for historic West Chicago house

By Robert Sanchez

Time appears to be running out for the Joel Wiant House.

After being a fixture in downtown West Chicago for more than 143 years, the brick building at 151 W. Washington St. has been vacant for years and fallen into disrepair.

The city, which owns the house, is trying to sell it for a dollar.

But officials say they've been unable to find a buyer capable of rehabilitating the historic structure for retail, restaurant, office, commercial or cultural uses. Meanwhile, the building stands within a 14-acre area the city has slated for redevelopment.

"If nobody comes forward to purchase the property, we have to figure out what we're going to do," Mayor Ruben Pineda said. "We can't leave the building in the condition that it's in."

Because the city's Plan B is to demolish the building, the Joel Wiant House has been named one the state's 10 most endangered historic places by a preservationist group called Landmarks Illinois.

Landmarks Illinois has released its annual list of endangered sites since 1995 to call attention to historic buildings facing the wrecking ball.

Bonnie McDonald, the group's president, said the house was put on this year's list in part to support the West Chicago Historical Preservation Commission, which has refused to give its blessing to the demolition idea.

"They have tried to work with the city council to find a way to incorporate the Joel Wiant House into a larger set of plans for the redevelopment site that has been planned for that area," McDonald said.

West Chicago resident Frank Fokta, who started a website to raise public awareness, said he's overjoyed the structure made the list.

"It was validation that somebody outside of our city actually saw this as a landmark that is worthy to be saved," Fokta said.

He said the house, which is part of the city's Turner Junction Historic District, should be preserved because it's a prime example of the "Second Empire" architectural style. It also has ties to two prominent families.

Joel Wiant, one of DuPage County's earliest settlers and a local businessman, had the home built between 1868 and 1869.

The family Wiant owned the house until it was purchased in the early 1900s by John W. Leedle, West Chicago's first city attorney. Leedle owned the house until his death in 1960.

According to Fokta, ownership of the house changed hands several times between 1960 and 2008. The house stopped being used as a single-family home during that time.

The structure was last used with offices on the first floor and apartments on the second floor.

By the time the city acquired the house through foreclosure in 2011, it was in need of repairs and had a number of building code violations.

John Said, the city's director of community development, said there has been significant structural deterioration.

City officials have tried to find a developer who can refurbish the building in a way that preserves its historical, cultural and architectural value.

Despite issuing two requests, city officials said no developers with acceptable plans have come forward.

"If somebody else comes forward tomorrow, we'll give them a walk-through," Pineda said.

The city in August 2012 began the process of seeking approval from the West Chicago Historic Preservation Commission for demolition of the house.

The commission denied the city's request, which triggered a public hearing.

After granting several delays in the proceedings, the advisory panel has set a June 4 date for the hearing.

If the historical commission again denies the city's request to demolish the building, the city council could reverse the decision.

"It all goes to the city council," Said noted. "They have the final authority."

Fokta said that's what he's afraid of.

"All the city administrator has to do is go to the city council and say, 'Can we tear this house down?'" Fokta said. "And the city council is going to say, 'Yep. Go ahead.'"

Pineda says anyone who thinks the city's goal is to raze the building is mistaken. He said the city has worked long and hard to save it.

"Once you destroy history, it's gone," he said. "We want to preserve it."

Officials with Landmarks Illinois said they would like to see the house become "an adaptive reuse" within the 14-acre West Washington Street Redevelopment Project area, which is expected to someday include a new city hall and police station.

"We are not suggesting that it become a museum," McDonald said of the house. "It had been used as office, so it could be returned to use as office space."

Pineda said he agrees the house is valuable. But he says taxpayers shouldn't have to pay what's expected to be a very high cost to restore it.

Meanwhile, the longer the city waits for a developer, the worse the building gets.

"We can't extend this out forever," Pineda said.

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