History buffs try to save Wheaton mansion from wrecking ball

  • Developers want to demolish the House of Seven Gables, a historic home on the campus of the Loretto Convent in Wheaton, to make way for a subdivision of 48 homes.

      Developers want to demolish the House of Seven Gables, a historic home on the campus of the Loretto Convent in Wheaton, to make way for a subdivision of 48 homes. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Preservationists are trying to save the House of Seven Gables, dating to 1897, from demolition on the 16-acre Loretto Convent property, where developers want to build a new subdivision of 48 homes.

    Preservationists are trying to save the House of Seven Gables, dating to 1897, from demolition on the 16-acre Loretto Convent property, where developers want to build a new subdivision of 48 homes. Courtesy of Nancy Flannery

  • Catholic nuns have lived on the secluded grounds of the Loretto Convent since 1946.

      Catholic nuns have lived on the secluded grounds of the Loretto Convent since 1946. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 
 

Preservationists trying to save a historic Wheaton mansion on the grounds of the Loretto Convent will speak out next week against a plan to redevelop the wooded retreat.

Developers want to demolish the House of Seven Gables and other buildings on the 16-acre property to make way for a new subdivision of 48 homes aimed at empty nesters and baby boomers. History buffs will challenge the proposal when planning and zoning board members review it Tuesday.

"I think time is running out for Seven Gables," said Nancy Flannery, chairwoman of city's historic commission.

Built in 1897, the brick mansion is a relic of the "Gilded Age" lifestyle, Flannery said. The house was part of 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 Chicago architect Jarvis Hunt to design the home for his daughter. Another Hunt work: the Chicago Golf clubhouse on Warrenville Road.

"People who live in Wheaton will be the poorer for losing this house," Flannery said. "I think it's a historic gem that is unique."

Loretto sisters, who belong to the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, have lived on the secluded site south of the golf club for 70 years. The campus was once home to about 80 nuns in the 1960s and a popular preschool.

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But low enrollment led to the closure of the Loretto Early Childhood Center in 2014. U.S. province leader Sister Kay Foley said at the time the institute sought the sale of the property because of declining revenue. About a dozen sisters, many of them aging, remain at Loretto -- accessed only off Somerset Lane.

"With the way things are changing today and expenses, it seems like it's the best thing to do," Foley said two years ago. "We're very grateful for what we've had for all these years, and all along the way, God has always provided."

Foley did not immediately return a message Wednesday for further comment.

Flannery and others have called on the developers, Pulte Homes, to restore the mansion as a community center that would anchor the Loretto Club subdivision of ranch-style houses.

Flannery also has suggested moving the mansion elsewhere in Wheaton, but acknowledged such a relocation would be "very expensive and very difficult."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Bonnie McDonald, president of Landmarks Illinois, wrote a November letter to Mayor Mike Gresk and city council members to consider the "irreplaceable" historic value of the home before they make a final decision. McDonald also suggested developers convert the mansion's rooms into condo units and take a page from the "successful" repurposing of another 1890s Wheaton building -- the former downtown courthouse -- as a condo complex.

"The House of Seven Gables, if properly incorporated in a larger, well-designed planned development, could be the signature property and a major draw for the Pulte Homes project," McDonald wrote.

In November, when Pulte Homes sought the council's informal feedback about the concept, Rob Getz, director of land acquisitions, said retrofitting historic buildings is "not what we do."

Vince Rosanova, an attorney for Pulte, did not respond to a phone call Wednesday.

The planning and zoning board will make a recommendation for or against the project.

The city council could consider the plans later this month.

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