Des Plaines oasis closes today

It was May 14, 1960. JFK was running for president, the Cold War was escalating and folks were swinging to Bobby Darin at a local dance.

When the music stopped, many couples "snacked at the Oasis in Des Plaines," the Arlington Heights Herald's Talk of the Town columnist reported. Birthdays, anniversaries, late-night rendezvous - the oasis and its white-cloth Fred Harvey restaurant was a destination point for suburbanites in the "Mad Men" age.

Today, the iconic, glass-framed structure that opened in 1959 sells its final cup of coffee and closes its doors. Demolition will start in late May or June.

Those nostalgic for the oasis can take comfort in the fact that its future status will forever alter how we commute. The site will serve as the northern nexus of a new toll road connecting the Jane Addams Tollway, the Elgin-O'Hare extension and western bypass and the Tri-State Tollway.

"I think there's going to be drastic changes," tollway Deputy Chief of Engineering for Planning Rocco Zucchero said. "You're going to see free flow and real interstate-to-interstate connections."

Currently, the Elgin-O'Hare peters out in Itasca. Drivers spill out onto Thorndale Avenue or navigate numerous stoplights to reach I-290/Route 53.

That will change, and estimates say congestion should drop 16 percent.

Traffic studies show the project "will have a significant impact on the local roads in that corridor," tollway Executive Director Kristi Lafleur said.

The eastern extension of the Elgin-O'Hare will connect with the bypass that will stretch along the airport's west side, linking with the Tri-State (I-294) to the south in Franklin Park and with the Jane Addams (I-90) to the north.

There are two reasons for demolishing the oasis. First, it's in the way of the tollway's I-90 widening project. Second, the structure sits right where the north section of the bypass will link to I-90 once it's completed around 2025.

"It's very close to being on top of it," Chief Engineer Paul Kovacs said of the oasis. The gas stations and 7-Eleven shop will remain until the north leg of the bypass is finished in 11 years or so.

So, what can I-90 commuters expect when they drive under the oasis this spring and summer?

No lane or shoulder closures will occur during rush hour, officials promised, adding there won't be any long-term disruptions. But overnight on several occasions, all lanes in one direction will be shut down briefly.

"There will be temporary (lane or shoulder) closures or a traffic shift during off-peak hours at times during the work," spokesman Daniel Rozek said in an email.

"Short-term, 15-minute closures of all lanes in one direction will be needed at times to remove parts of the over-the-road structure, which is a typical procedure used when bridges are built or removed from the tollway. Those closures will be done overnight to minimize traffic disruptions."

The tollway has removed large panels of glass from the structure previously to repair cracks or damage and frequently works on bridges over toll roads, Kovacs said.

Typically, workers install a protective shield under the structure to catch dust and debris.

"It's a big structure over the road," Lafleur said. "It's not like one of those Las Vegas casinos where you can put dynamite in the right places and bring the whole thing down. Doing it safely and carefully is the top priority."

How do you remove tons of concrete and glass over a major interstate? It's an intricate process involving suction cups, cranes and construction workers who don't mind heights.

"The building will be removed first, then the foundation, including the support beams that run across I-90," Rozek said.

Details are still being worked out, but removal of the glass windows is expected to occur during off-peak hours because lanes will need to be closed so no traffic is underneath.

"The windows, which are arranged in four floor-to-ceiling rows, are taken down from outside of the building by workers who use suction cups to handle the glass sheets," Rozek said. "The workers have to be raised by lift trucks or cranes to reach the upper rows of windows. The lower windows, however, can be removed by workers standing on an outside catwalk."

The project also entails repaving the parking lots and landscaping the oasis foundation.

Car and truck parking lots will remain open although capacity will be reduced to make way for construction equipment and pavement work.

Once the building closes today, vendors will remove equipment and the tollway takes possession April 1 when utility relocation starts.

Lafleur acknowledged the demolition is bittersweet for locals who remember the oasis' heyday and their kids who recall stopping there as the beginning of an adventurous trip to Chicago or farther afield.

But faster commutes, better connections and less traffic with the expressway project are the trade-offs, she said. "It's going to be a great benefit to the region."

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Images: Des Plaines Oasis over the years

  Jim Scharpf eats lunch at the Des Plaines oasis on Thursday, just days before the site shuts its doors for good. George LeClaire/
  The Des Plaines oasis stirs up nostalgic thoughts for longtime suburbanites who may have stopped there for dinner in its early years or for a cup of coffee on the way to O'Hare. George LeClaire/

Midnight for the oasis

Here are some fast facts about the Des Plaines Oasis:

• Opened in 1959. Being demolished in 2014.

• Will cost $4.8 million to remove the structure and make parking improvements. The Illinois tollway also is paying leaseholder SFI Chicago Tollway LLC $9.3 million for termination costs.

• The oasis closes today, and the tollway takes possession April 1. Demolition work should occur in late May and June.

• Removing the oasis allows the agency to proceed with widening the Jane Addams Tollway (I-90) from three to four lanes in both directions between Elgin and O'Hare International Airport.

• The oasis also is in the way of a western bypass around O'Hare airport that links up with I-90 in Des Plaines and I-294 near Franklin Park. There are eight potential properties near the I-90 and western bypass junction that the tollway may acquire as part of the project, which will be completed around 2025.

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