Subdivision plan would demolish historic building on Loretto Convent site

Wheaton city council members are expected next month to approve plans to redevelop the Loretto Convent into upscale homes for empty nesters, but preservationists want more time for a last-ditch effort to save a historic building on the site.

The project by Pulte Homes would demolish more than a dozen buildings on the tree-lined campus to make way for the Loretto Club, a community of 48 homes with first-floor master bedrooms. The proposal has garnered critics from neighbors in the Marywood subdivision to the west and those who want to spare the property's House of Seven Gables, an “irreplaceable” work of architect Jarvis Hunt.

Council members unanimously told the city attorney Monday night to prepare a draft measure approving the subdivision plans. The council could vote on the resolution as early as April 3.

Catholic nuns, who belong to the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, have lived at Loretto for 70 years. Sister Kay Foley, the institute's former U.S. province leader, told the council this week that the sale of their land to Pulte would provide the funds for the retirement and health care of Loretto's aging nuns.

“We're spending more money tending to the needs of the property and the facilities than we are to our ministries,” Foley said. “In fact some of our ministries have closed, not because we wanted them to close. They closed because of attrition.”

The sisters closed the Loretto Early Childhood Center in 2014 because of low enrollment. But they have spent more than a decade looking for a potential buyer of their 16-acre property, Foley said.

The highest offer they received came from a developer who considered reusing the Loretto buildings for a senior living facility, an attorney for the nuns told the planning and zoning board last month. But that developer later determined the project was not financially feasible.

Pulte has offered to donate the 1890s-era House of Seven Gables to anyone willing to relocate it, but no has stepped forward, an attorney for the company said in late February.

Landmarks Illinois, a nonprofit that called on developers to repurpose the brick mansion as part of the new subdivision, has publicized Pulte's offer on social media. Nancy Flannery, the chairwoman of the city's historic commission, asked the council this week to delay a decision to review responses she received to a Craigslist ad searching for someone interested in moving the mansion. That ad has apparently been flagged for removal.

Built in 1897, the brick home joined the “Colony,” an exclusive neighborhood for members of the private Chicago Golf Club, the first 18-hole course in the country. Steel magnate Jay Morris hired Hunt, the architect behind the Chicago Golf clubhouse, to design the home for his daughter.

“I have one real interest in all of this and that is the historic preservation of a very unique structure that has made and could make Wheaton very special,” Flannery said.

Neighbors, meanwhile, have expressed concerns about traffic. The proposal calls for extending Somerset Lane to serve as the main access into the new subdivision.

Councilman Phil Suess said he wants to see “what could be done” to create another entrance and exit to the development via Hawthorn Lane.

  Fourteen buildings on the Loretto Convent property would be demolished to make way for a new subdivision of homes aimed at empty nesters and retirees. Jeff Knox/
  The Wheaton City Council is expected to next month to approve plans for a controversial subdivision on the grounds of the Loretto Convent. Preservationists are fighting to save a historic mansion on the property from the wrecking ball. Bev Horne/
A 1910 postcard shows the House of Seven Gables, a mansion that would be demolished along with other Loretto buildings to make way for a subdivision of 48 homes. Courtesy of Nancy Flannery
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