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updated: 9/30/2013 5:07 AM

Preservationists honored for saving Pure Oil building in Geneva

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  • Before its renovation into a drive-up bank, this is how the old Pure Oil station in Geneva looked last year when it housed a gardening shop. Preservation Partners of the Fox Valley has won an award for advocating for the preservation of the historic building.

       Before its renovation into a drive-up bank, this is how the old Pure Oil station in Geneva looked last year when it housed a gardening shop. Preservation Partners of the Fox Valley has won an award for advocating for the preservation of the historic building.
    John Starks | Staff Photographer


Great things can start with the most routine actions -- like checking what's going to be on the agenda of local government board meetings.

Members of Preservation Partners of the Fox Valley do that. And that was the first step in saving the Pure Oil gas station in Geneva from being torn down, a campaign that has won the group a prestigious award.

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Landmarks Illinois announced recently that Preservation Partners is one of nine winners of the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Preservation Awards. It will be bestowed at a ceremony Oct. 26.

"It recognizes that you can be a small group and you can be a big player," said Liz Safanda, Preservation Partners' executive director.

The campaign

It began routinely. Preservation Partners saw that the owner of the Pure Oil station and a bank client of his were asking the Geneva Historic Preservation Commission in February 2012 for permission to raze the building. "Let's go listen," Safanda told PPFV members.

The Pure Oil station opened in 1937 at 502 W. State St. It was a Tudor Revival designed to resemble a house, and featured a blue terra-cotta roof that became a trademark look for the company.

In more recent years, it had housed a gardening shop, which was featured on the cover of a Geneva Chamber of Commerce guide. It is in a historic district, meaning it had to meet certain federal standards for renovation or teardown.

The commission denied the request, which proved to be only a temporary victory, because the owner appealed the decision to the Geneva City Council.

That's when the campaign to save the historic site shifted in to a higher gear.

"We better get ourselves together and spearhead something," Safanda recalls saying. Advocates formed Friends of the Pure Oil Station and started preparing a rebuttal to claims it would be too expensive to repurpose the building as drive-up lanes for a bank, which is what was planned for the property.

Not just feelings

Safanda knew elected officials would want to hear more than sentiment. She suspected that without testimony as to the building's value, the council would let it be torn down.

One key was showing that preservationists were not against economic opportunity.

"We don't want to squelch it (development). We just want to shape it," she said.

They focused on the building, not on the tenant who had fallen behind on his rent and was going to be evicted. "That could not be our issue," Safanda said.

The group talked about the value of the station to downtown Geneva, which is known for its variety of architectural styles and historic buildings. The Pure Oil station was one of the things that helped it avoid a "cookie-cutter" look, they said.

Safanda told the council that Landmarks Illinois was willing to provide consultants to figure out how it could be converted reasonably.

They presented paper and online petitions, with more than 2,100 signatures, protesting the demolition. Supporters flooded aldermen's email inboxes. And at least 90 showed up at the city council meetings when the matter was voted on.

"The city council really did a good job of listening to the issues," Safanda said.

Kudos to bank

Safanda also praised the president of the bank, Geneva Bank & Trust. The bank decided to renovate the building and make it a drive-up facility, which opened this spring.

"He just got real involved in it," Safanda said.

The bank found old Pure Oil signs from the East Coast and brought them back to the site. Even the bank sign is reminiscent of the style of Pure Oil.

"They did a real thorough job," Safanda said. " ... It was just a great, great victory."

Safanda almost didn't apply for the Driehaus Award because last year a gasoline station in Decatur had won for conversion and preservation. But a Landmarks Illinois staff member told her she should apply in the "advocacy" category. There is a small cash prize, $500. A photo of the building is one of four featured on the invitation to next month's ceremony.

Winning the Driehaus Award may help Preservation Partners with its future efforts.

"It helps our credibility," Safanda said. "That's what this award is about."

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