'We have an opportunity and a responsibility to preserve': Historic Stevenson home won't be razed

It wasn't as if bulldozers were at the door, but three years of uncertainty regarding the possible demolition of the deteriorating Adlai E. Stevenson II Historic Home in Mettawa has ended.

Razing the national landmark now is off the table as Lake County Forest Preserve District board members have committed to long-term ownership, repair and maintenance of the home and stable/service building.

"They gave us a clear direction," said Ty Kovach, the district's executive director. "We know what to do now."

The bipartisan decision by forest commissioners to apply immediately for an already secured $1.1 million state grant is regarded as a victory by preservationists and supports the district's mission of protecting cultural resources.

"We have an opportunity and a responsibility to preserve these things," said veteran forest Commissioner Ann Maine, a Republican from Lincolnshire.

Accepting the funding forest board President Angelo Kyle asked for a year ago also will avoid angering legislators who secured the grant and risking the loss of future state assistance, supporters said.

State funding was secured last June, but an invitation to apply wasn't offered until February.

"It would be foolish of us not to take it at this point in time when it is available and we have an urgent need," said Commissioner Paul Frank, a Democratic from Highland Park.

Kyle sought the funding from state lawmakers to ensure the integrity of the Stevenson home and service building, and resources to care for the "nationally significant resource" in perpetuity.

"Rejecting money that the forest preserve specifically asked for would have made it nearly impossible to effectively advocate for Lake County projects in Springfield," state Rep. Dan Didech, a Buffalo Grove Democrat, said last week.

Should more funding be required, Didech said he would work with colleagues to identify funding sources "sufficient to permanently preserve one of Lake County's most historic locations."

Stevenson was an Illinois governor, U.N. ambassador and Democratic Party nominee for president in 1952 and 1956. The district was gifted the 40-acre property from St. Mary's Road to the Des Plaines River south of Route 60 in 1974.

Built in 1938, the home was the renowned statesman's refuge and go-to base of operations. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a designated National Historic Landmark with Fort Sheridan, one of two in Lake County and in company with such sites as the Old State Capitol and Lincoln Tomb, and Wrigley Field.

Whether or how to address continuing deterioration of the buildings has been a looming issue. The cost, estimated a year ago at $1.1 million, likely may have increased, Kovach said.

Funding future maintenance costs, pegged at about $20,000 annually, also has been a consideration. The question facing the district was whether to bulldoze the buildings and honor and interpret Stevenson's life, impact and significance in a new way.

But the forest board's unanimous decision last week ensured that the home of the distinguished statesman, who hosted VIP political and cultural leaders, including John F. Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, John Steinbeck and Lauran Bacall, will be repaired and restored.

A master plan for the property will proceed simultaneously. It will identify options to make the buildings more energy-efficient; improve parking and public access, including a potential connection to the Des Plaines River Trail; and identify Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant improvements.

With a direction needed, Kovach gave commissioners two options: Apply for the grant and proceed with a master plan immediately, or create a master plan and then apply for the grant.

In the second scenario, Kovach said the master plan would consider all options from maintaining to demolishing the structures. But with the commitment to the buildings, that now appears moot.

"In the end, once a master planning process is undertaken, demolition of this extremely important place should not even be considered an option," said Lisa DiChiera, director of advocacy for Landmarks Illinois, a statewide nonprofit dedicated to saving historic places.

Supporters of the first option noted the grant may not have been available if the district waited. But a few commissioners argued that state officials said there was no timetable to apply for the grant and planning first would be prudent.

"The master plan should drive everything else," said Commissioner Sandy Hart, a Democrat from Lake Bluff. "Before we sink more money into this we need to figure it out."

After a spirited discussion, the board voted 20-0 to pursue the grant and master plan simultaneously.

Repair costs for the home and service building will be reevaluated. How far the money will stretch is undetermined.

"We're going to get as far as we can with the house," Kovach said.

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  Lake County Forest Preserve District commissioners tour the historic Adlai E. Stevenson home in Mettawa in May 2021. At the time, repairing the house and adjoining service building was estimated at $1.1 million. Mick Zawislak/, 2021
Members of the Lake County House Democratic Delegation last fall toured the Adlai E. Stevenson II historic home and grounds in Mettawa after securing $1.1 million in state funding for repairs. From left are Rep. Bob Morgan of Deerfield, Rep. Sam Yingling of Grayslake, Rep. Daniel Didech of Buffalo Grove, Nan Buckardt, director of education for the Lake County Forest Preserve District, and Rep. Joyce Mason of Gurnee. Courtesy of state Rep. Sam Yingling, 2021
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