'Keeping history alive': Medinah residents battle developer's pitch for farmhouse, neighborhood
Susie vander Nat could see past the crumbling fireplace, the uneven flooring, the overgrown weeds, the years of neglect.
Both fond of old houses, vander Nat and her husband, Arnold, fell in love with one almost as old as the town itself. Built circa 1840, the Medinah home originally belonged to members of the Meacham family, some of the first pioneers to settle in northeastern DuPage County.
The couple moved from Chicago and spent almost four years restoring the historic farmhouse to its former glory. Repainted a shade of "smoky purple," the prominent home graces a gravel driveway, a slice of rural living along four-lane Medinah Road.
"It just felt like we were keeping history alive," vander Nat said.
Spared from the ravages of time, that piece of history now faces another threat: Developers want to tear down the home and nearly 150 others to make way for an industrial park.
Transwestern Development sent letters to some, but not all, of the residents in the unincorporated neighborhood last month, offering to pay each of them $22.50 per square foot for their properties. The vander Nat home, situated on an acre, would fetch $980,100 at that rate, but they insist they would never sell.
"There was nothing that was going to stop us from taking this house and getting it and making it our own," vander Nat said. "And quite honestly, there's going to be nothing that takes it from us, period."
Transwestern has razed residential subdivisions in neighboring Wood Dale to build massive warehouses. Medinah, however, is a whole different animal, vander Nat says. The small community has no municipal leaders and espouses individualism. As guardians of town history, vander Nat and her neighbors embody that spirit by taking on a multibillion-dollar goliath.
"There's just not very many areas that are like this, and it's lush, it's secluded. We're self-sustaining," said vander Nat, 54. "Nobody here is worried about whether the well goes out or their septic goes out. People take care of it."
In 1833, the Meachams, a family of New Englanders, came to settle in what would eventually become Medinah. Lyman Meacham soon was followed by three brothers: Harvey, Daniel and Dr. Silas Meacham, who later moved to the Des Plaines area. The family claimed about 1,200 acres, much of it woodland, according to the county historical society.
The vander Nats don't know exactly when their Greek Revival-style home was built. But at some point, Cyrus H. Meacham sold it to Col. Benjamin Franklin Meacham, who joined his uncle, Harvey, in Meacham's Grove in 1855.
An image from an 1874 atlas -- the only one the vander Nats can find -- shows the working homestead, with its gabled roof, a herd of cows grazing and a locomotive chugging in the background.
"We feel like we belong here. And then the idea that it was old, of course, appealed to both of us," said vander Nat, who's originally from Elk Grove Village. "My husband really enjoys history and researching, and we were very excited that this was part of northern DuPage history and the Meachams. I've driven up and down Meacham Road my whole life being from the Northwest suburbs."
But for all its historic significance, the home had been abandoned by its modern-day owners and fell into disrepair. One real estate agent wouldn't even show the inside to vander Nat and her husband. It was unoccupied for nearly five years.
"The plumbing was all shot. The electricity was a nightmare because it was all out of code," she said. "And then the previous owner had added all sorts of crazy wiring all over the yard, the garage, everywhere."
The couple paid $190,000 to buy the house in 2015, county records show. They replaced all the windows and the roof, installed new wood flooring and brought back a tradition of craftsmanship. Custom molding frames the front door.
"It sounds very cliché when you say you put your heart and soul into a home," vander Nat said. "This isn't a house. This is our home, and we love it. There's just no other way to put it."
A gut punch
Transwestern is trying to buy homes in a 138-acre area bound by Thorndale Avenue to the north, Hilltop Drive to the east, Medinah Road to the west and the Metra Milwaukee-West rail lines to the south. Transwestern would look to annex the area into the village of Itasca.
So when a friend sent her the letter from Transwestern, vander Nat was so distraught that she made copies and went door to door, spreading the word about the industrial developer's plans.
"I felt absolutely gutted because we haven't been here that long," vander Nat said. "We've put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the house to make it look as it should, to make it stand proud."
Transwestern pulled its request to present the proposal to Itasca's Community Development Committee last month. The developer has not requested to reschedule yet, Itasca Village Administrator Carie Anne Ergo said.
"Transwestern has indicated to the village that it is in the process of determining project feasibility," she said.
Transwestern executives did not respond to inquiries about the status of the project.
But Medinah residents still are on high alert. The village of Itasca has identified the unincorporated area "for future annexation and commercial development," Mayor Jeff Pruyn wrote in a June letter.
"The sale of properties is completely voluntary and is a private transaction between the property owner and Transwestern," he wrote. "The village of Itasca is not a party or privy to terms of private sales transactions."
Medinah residents are fighting a "divide and conquer" strategy commonly employed by developers, vander Nat said. She hasn't received a formal offer from Transwestern yet, but her home sits within the footprint of the second phase of potential development.
"If phase one falls, then they don't have to do much arm twisting on phase two," she said.
Even if everyone else around her sells -- and her home is the last one standing -- vander Nat fears her property will be forcibly annexed into Itasca and rezoned for industrial use. Then she'll end up "paying industrial taxes living in our house."
"It's unthinkable, and they don't care because all they want to do is expand their tax base," she said.
'Very limited space'
In an April memo, Itasca Village Planner Mo Khan said officials began internal discussions in June 2021 about expanding Itasca's industrial park for various reasons, "including but not limited to increasing and solidifying the village's tax base."
"However, due to Itasca being a built-out community, there is very limited space for that to occur without demolishing existing buildings, which would most likely also require displacing other Itasca businesses and losing them to other communities," he wrote.
Medinah residents determined to maintain their community's independence call it a "money grab."
"I find it astounding that Itasca would even consider running roughshod over a beautiful neighborhood," said Charlie Harth, who's lived in Medinah for 30 years.
Other residents have accused Itasca officials of hypocrisy.
"They pride themselves on their historic village and historic homes, and our house is older than any one of the houses that they have in their historic village," vander Nat said.
Her home lacks historical protections. A spot on the National Register of Historic Places would offer only an honorary title. She says she controls its fate. So she's enlisted neighbors to make protest signs and voice their opposition to the development.
"All it takes," she said, "is for enough people to say 'no.'"