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Article updated: 7/5/2013 5:11 AM

Panel rejects West Chicago's request to raze 144-year-old home

By Robert Sanchez

West Chicago aldermen would need to overrule a local historical preservation commission in order to allow the city to demolish a 144-year-old house to make room for downtown redevelopment.

The Joel Wiant House, which is owned by the city, has been vacant for years and has fallen into disrepair. And despite two separate attempts to sell it for a dollar, city officials haven't been able to find a buyer capable of rehabilitating the historic structure.

Now the city's Plan B has hit a roadblock. The West Chicago Historical Preservation Commission this week refused to give permission for the brick building at 151 W. Washington St. to be torn down.

Commission members on Wednesday night unanimously agreed to notify the city that its application for a "certificate of appropriateness" has been denied. The certificate is needed because the house is within West Chicago's Turner Junction Historical District.

The city won't get a written copy of the findings until Friday. But commission members publicly read some of the document, which calls on the city to withdraw its demolition request.

In addition, commission members are suggesting the city renovate the building itself or weatherproof the structure to buy more time for a suitable new use or owner to be found. Another suggestion is for city officials to make another attempt to find a developer. Only this time, it should be widely promoted that an "adaptive reuse" plan for the property is desired.

"I'm very satisfied with the decision," said Frank Fokta, a West Chicago resident who pushed for the house to be named one of the state's 10 most endangered historic places.

But Fokta said he also realizes the battle to save the Joel Wiant House is far from over. That's because officials could ask the city council to reverse the decision.

"The city has to decide whether to appeal the commission's recommendation," said John Said, West Chicago's director of community development. "If so, then that appeal would go to the city council for final action."

The city has 15 days from the day it receives the commission's written findings to file an appeal. In the meantime, officials want to decide the fate of the house because it stands within a 14-acre area the city has slated for redevelopment.

Cheryl Waterman, who serves on the historical preservation commission, said the panel devoted "hours and hours of work and study" to determine whether the building should be included in the West Washington Redevelopment Project area. She said she hopes city council members take that into consideration.

"To me, if they read this and truly understand the purpose of a historic preservation commission," Waterman said, "they would accept our recommendation."

Commission members say demolishing the building would affect the "integrity" of the city's historic district.

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 first white 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.

When asked why the house is worth saving, Waterman said, "There's nothing else like it."

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