Will Naperville panel OK demolition of historic Kroehler mansion?

Little Friends wants to demolish buildings, sell land in Naperville's historic district

  • Leaders of the nonprofit disability services organization Little Friends in Naperville say their campus in the city's historic district, which includes the Kroehler mansion and College Park, is at the end of its useful life and should be demolished.

      Leaders of the nonprofit disability services organization Little Friends in Naperville say their campus in the city's historic district, which includes the Kroehler mansion and College Park, is at the end of its useful life and should be demolished. Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

  • An undated image of the Kroehler mansion in Naperville hangs inside the historic building, which now is used as Mansion High School and operated by the disability services agency Little Friends.

      An undated image of the Kroehler mansion in Naperville hangs inside the historic building, which now is used as Mansion High School and operated by the disability services agency Little Friends. Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

  • Little Friends has renovated and pieced together old buildings on its Wright Street campus in Naperville, but the facility would need an estimated $10.6 million in repairs during the next decade and an additional $6 million in expansion costs to meet the nonprofit's educational needs.

      Little Friends has renovated and pieced together old buildings on its Wright Street campus in Naperville, but the facility would need an estimated $10.6 million in repairs during the next decade and an additional $6 million in expansion costs to meet the nonprofit's educational needs. Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 10/20/2019 2:13 PM

Naperville's historic preservation commission soon has a decision to make that will affect a longtime nonprofit group and its neighbors, as well as a home once occupied by one of the city's 20th-century business leaders.

The commission on Thursday is set to consider a request from Little Friends to demolish all the buildings on its campus at 140 S. Wright St., including what's known as the Kroehler mansion, the one-time home of furniture maker and two-time Naperville Mayor Peter Edward Kroehler.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The commission could grant a certificate of appropriateness, which would allow the demolition to take place, or could rule that the buildings should stand. The decision is final unless a denial is appealed to the city council.

At stake for historic district residents is the character of the neighborhood they bought into, which some say is being eroded house by house as entities such as North Central College are granted demolition permits for projects like the new Dr. Myron Wentz Science Center.

"The college and Little Friends, they seem to be acting on a different set of rules than any of us taxpayers," resident Julie Garrison said.

At stake for historians and preservationists is the visibility of the legacy of Kroehler, who built a hometown company into the world's largest furniture manufacturer and a military contractor during World War II, according to curators at Naper Settlement. The house where Kroehler lived for roughly 18 months with his then-wife, Katherine, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated as significant within the Naperville historic district.

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"It's not just to hold onto it," Naperville historian Bryan Ogg said about the mansion, "but to tell the story."

And at stake for Little Friends is its ability to move out of what officials say is a high-maintenance and outdated campus that is costly because it consists of the mansion and three other old buildings repaired, renovated and patched together over time.

A growing demand

An architect's analysis conducted for Little Friends, which offers schools and services for people with autism and other disabilities, found the campus needs $10.6 million in repairs during the next decade to stay functional. It would cost an additional $6 million to add the space Little Friends feels is necessary to meet growing demand.

President and CEO Mike Briggs said the organization hoped to move to an existing -- and larger -- building in Warrenville and renovate it for $7 million, less than half what it would cost to stay. But that building is no longer under contract because of delays in the process of emptying and selling the Wright Street land.

Little Friends originally planned to sell its 4-acre property to nearby North Central College but terminated the deal in July to seek a demolition permit without first having to get the property rezoned for college use.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

So while Little Friends wants to raze the Kroehler mansion as well as a garage and two dormitory buildings from 1948 and 1956, some neighbors and preservationists want to see the 112-year-old mansion remain in place.

Garrison said some have called the mansion the "flagship of the historic district."

"At one time, you would drive in the historic district and come up on this entire block with just one house on it," she said. "It was incredible."

Since December, when Little Friends announced its intent to sell, Garrison said she and some other neighbors have been researching the property's history and Little Friends' finances. She said they've been seeking to understand the zoning as well as whether what she called "poor business operations" by Little Friends are causing the need to move.

One angle of the research has turned up documents from a federal grant received in the 1970s that helped Little Friends take possession of the property. Garrison said the grant comes with historic preservation requirements that she said Little Friends would be breaking by demolishing the buildings.

But spokesman Patrick Skarr said Little Friends fulfilled the terms of the grant and, in 1989, gained title to the property as its full owner, making the rules Garrison found "inapplicable."

"Receiving a grant doesn't require a nonprofit to remain in its location in perpetuity," Skarr said. "Now we're a property owner just like anybody else."

And a property owner looking to sell.

'We're trying to sell'

Little Friends has received offers on the land since calling off the deal with North Central, including one from a developer who has proposed leaving the mansion on the site. But Briggs said the plan remains to seek permission to demolish all four buildings.

"What we're trying to do is to sell the land, because it's the greatest asset that we have, so we can move to a building that would be not only more economically feasible for us but also something that's better suited," Briggs said.

Others, however, still hope for a compromise that keeps the mansion in place.

"We want to respect and do what's right for the students, and we want to respect and do what's right for the residents," Garrison said.

The historic preservation commission is scheduled to take up the demolition request at 7 p.m. Thursday in the council chambers at the Naperville Municipal Center, 400 S. Eagle St.

Raze: One buyer who approached nonprofit would preserve mansion

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