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Article updated: 6/27/2013 9:15 AM

Panel working to save 144-year-old West Chicago house

West Chicago commission resists effort to raze 144-year-old home

By Robert Sanchez

If West Chicago chooses to demolish a 144-year-old house it owns in the downtown area, it probably won't have the support of the city's historical preservation commission.

The advisory panel next week is expected to reject -- for the second time -- a request by the city to raze the Joel Wiant House.

While the formal vote won't happen until July 3, members of the commission made it clear during a public discussion this week they support saving the brick building at 151 W. Washington St.

"Once demolished, that building never can be put back," Commissioner Cheryl Waterman said. "What a shame if it's demolished and then you say, 'This could have been something else.'"

There's an ongoing debate about whether the vacant structure, which is in disrepair, should remain within a 14-acre area West Chicago has slated for redevelopment.

Despite trying to sell the building for a dollar, city officials haven't been able to find a buyer capable of rehabilitating it for retail, restaurant, office, commercial or cultural uses.

So the city is seeking a "certificate of appropriateness" to demolish the building. The certificate is needed because the house is in the city's Turner Junction Historic District.

The West Chicago Historical Preservation Commission already denied the city's request once, which triggered a public hearing.

This week, commissioners said they didn't hear anything during the hearing that would persuade them to reverse their denial.

They referred to testimony from architects who said the building is structurally sound.

"The public somehow has gotten the idea that the structure isn't sound," commission Chairwoman Janet Dayton Hale said. "Both the city's study and the one commissioners requested indicate otherwise."

Hale also questioned estimates of how much it would cost to repair the structure's exterior and interior.

City officials say estimates they got from two companies show it would cost about $550,000 to make the repairs. Meanwhile, an architectural firm that inspected the house on behalf of the city said the work would cost about $938,000.

Hale said the repair cost doesn't need to be that significant, especially if the work is limited to making the building suitable for use by addressing various code violations.

"There's a difference between the dollars it would take to comply with code and some of the things that were being presented," she said.

Preservationists have argued the structure could become "an adaptive reuse" within the 14-acre West Washington Street Redevelopment Project area that is expected to someday include a new city hall.

Historical commissioners said they believe a new use for the house can be found.

"We heard a lot of testimony that it wouldn't be commercially viable or economically feasible to pour the money into it and then have residential on one level and office space on another," Waterman said. "But I don't think we heard a true examination of what other kinds of uses this property could be put to."

In addition to being one of the last surviving Second Empire-style structures in DuPage County, the house has ties to two prominent families.

Joel Wiant, one of DuPage's earliest settlers and a local businessman, had the house built around 1869. It later was occupied by John W. Leedle, West Chicago's first city attorney.

Hale said demolishing the building would affect the "integrity" of West Chicago's historic district.

"The loss of any (of the district's buildings), particularly one as important as this one, would be serious," Hale said.

Even if the panel denies the city's request to raze the building, the city council could reverse the decision.

So for the Joel Wiant House to be saved, supporters say, council members must be sold on the idea. The council will consider the demolition request during its July 15 meeting, officials said.

"Hopefully, the city will understand the value of its history," said West Chicago resident Frank Fokta, who pushed for the house to be named one of the state's 10 most endangered historic places. "There's no reason to rip down this house, period."

House: City council has final say on building's fate

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