Plan to save historic Wheaton mansion crumbles

A mansion with a storied past in Wheaton is headed for demolition after park district commissioners decided Wednesday to cease negotiations with preservationists to save the 1890s-era building on the Loretto Convent campus at the eleventh hour.

The board unanimously declined to move forward with a daunting project that would have required raising about $1.2 million in donations and pledges to relocate and convert the mansion into a special events venue at Seven Gables Park.

As the clock ticks on a deadline for developers to tear down the House of Seven Gables, commissioners raised concerns about the project's financial viability and accessibility if the mansion hosted weddings and banquets in the park's far western edge, where there is currently no parking lot.

“The logistics of this whole thing — it just doesn't work,” Commissioner Ray Morrill said.

Dozens of neighbors also opposed the project because of fears about traffic, noise and late-night alcohol consumption at a park that's already heavily used.

As a former social worker at Loretto, Pam Curtin said she has a “heartfelt” attachment to the mansion. But as a longtime resident on Danada Drive, Curtin took issue with added congestion and disturbing open green space.

The Wheaton City Council about a month ago approved the project by Pulte Homes to redevelop the Loretto campus, a 16-acre property owned by Catholic nuns since 1946. For about a year, Pulte offered to donate the brick mansion to anyone willing to relocate it.

Rob Getz, the company's director of land acquisitions, told the park board last week that developers need the mansion off the property — either by demolition or relocation — by July 10 so that crews can complete site grading and roadwork before asphalt plants close in the fall.

After a week of preparations, relocating the mansion itself — an engineering feat — would last three weeks. That means movers would have to start staging on the property by June 12, Getz said.

Preservationists envisioned the mansion becoming a community asset and contacted the park district May 17. Katy Goldsborough and her husband initially offered to front the moving costs.

Goldsborough called demolishing the building designed by Jarvis Hunt, a 19th-century prominent architect, a “tragedy.” She also expressed frustrations that the group was unable to address complaints from neighbors.

“We have been working really hard for weeks and weeks, for months, and I think that a lot of tonight is incredibly disappointing in large part because of lack of communication between the preservation group and everyone here,” Goldsborough said. “Up until a few hours ago, we were still fundraising, still making phone calls.”

That campaign appeared to be gaining momentum in recent days. The park district and city of Wheaton proposed contributing a combined $264,000 for the project. Last Friday, a donor identified by the DuPage Foundation promised $100,000. Park district officials also got word Wednesday that the group had found five additional donors who pledged $275,000 over 10 years.

But park district leaders cautioned that operating a restored facility would likely involve two to three years of deficit spending before the venue became financially sustainable. Officials estimated that rental fees would need to generate $200,000 annually to successfully operate and maintain the two-story brick structure built in 1897.

“Had we been brought into this three or four months ago where we could have vetted it out with the community, we could have looked at access, we could have looked at sites. It's something that might have been possible,” Commissioner John Kelly said.

Michael Benard, executive director of the park district, had hoped public support would be strong enough to warrant preserving the mansion.

“Unfortunately, the research and short-term fundraising effort yielded data that did not allow me to recommend their (the park board's) involvement,” he said. “It simply was not a good business decision to proceed.”

How Wheaton Park District could help save Loretto mansion

Preservationists scrambling to raise money to save Wheaton mansion

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.