Another Demolition in Kenilworth

Medium-sized image unavailable for this photo.
The new owners of this 19th-century house, designed by Franklin Burnham and remodeled by Prairie School architect George Maher, tore it down in September 2008.

Credit: Nefrette Halim

The Chicago suburb known as ground zero for "teardowns" may lose its oldest house next year. In July, the owners of an 1860s farmhouse in Kenilworth, Ill., filed an application for demolition. Although the village determined on Sept. 15 that the 1860s farmhouse is historically significant, and enacted a six-month delay, the owners will be free to raze their property in March.

That's just what Robert and Lisa Mathias did to their 19th-century house last week. In October 2007, the couple filed an application to raze the $2.2 million residence, designed by Franklin Burnham and remodeled by Prairie School architect George Maher. A village commission deemed the house historically significant, but even a six-month delay could not save the property.

"The village had meetings with the owner to seek alternatives to demolition, and at the end of the six-month-delay period, they decided to proceed with demolition," says Susan Criezis, the village's community development director.

The Mathias family turned down offers to remove doors and a staircase from the house, according to Eric Nordstrom, owner of Chicago-based Urban Remains. "I was very saddened that the owners chose to wreck everything in the house, even items that could have been easily re-used," says Nefrette Halim, a real-estate agent who specializes in restorations. "That decision was irrationally wasteful from a historical perspective and an environmental perspective."

Kenilworth, a village of 830 historic houses, established its six-month delay ordinance in 2001. Since then, a commission has reviewed 41 demolition applications and determined 13 houses to be historically significant. Of those 13, only four were not bulldozed. In 2006 the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Kenilworth one of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

Now Kenilworth residents are locked in a battle over whether to nominate the village as a National Register Historic District. Some homeowners feel the designation will protect their historic properties. Others worry that it will places limits on what they can do with their homes. Even if approved, the designation would do little to curb the teardown trend: A listing on the National Register cannot prevent private demolition. Only local laws can impose delays or deny teardowns.

"Even with a National Register district in place, these demolitions would still be permitted," says Lisa DiChiera, advocacy director for Chicago-based Landmarks Illinois.

Read the National Trust for Historic Preservation's free Teardowns Tool 

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Submitted by Thomas Jefferson at: December 12, 2010
If (IF) Mr. Mathias' claims are correct, then the article is indeed an example of shoddy journalism (not, I repeat NOT, some element, however minor, of some radical - cue sinister music - preservationist agenda) and they deserve an apology. If (IF) the owner of Urban Remains did in fact wait until the last minute to enter the property to remove pieces like...staircases...then, he's to blame not the owners. If however, the authors account of events is the truth, well, Kenilworth will get what it deserves. This reminds me of a quote from Ada Louie-Huxtable, eminent architecture critic - "Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately deserves... We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tin-horn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed" For the "Personal Property Rights" goof, so, in essence, what you're saying is that I could purchase the home next to Mr. and Mrs. Mathias and commence building, say, a rendering plant, or a dog kennel, or a slaughterhouse, etc.? Its the radicals like Personal Property Rights that amuse me the most.

Submitted by washingtonson at: October 21, 2008
Obviously, if the Matthias' were interested in being such good citizens, they would've given some consideration of the offers of these folks.Pretty telling to me that Mr. Matthias didn't take the offers to re-use any of the house, because even if this article he repeatedly got name of the owner of the "Urban Remain" wrong ! Guess he didn't care too much to listen to the guys' offer if he didn't get his name right!

Submitted by HISTORY MAN at: October 8, 2008
From Tianjing, China. I just read the response from Mr. Mathias. It seems to me that you folks are guilty of some pretty shoddy reporting and owe Mr & Mrs. Mathias an apology and promise to attempt to be more responsible in your future reporting efforts. I applaud reasoned "historic preservation" but please don't confuse your mission with necessary progress.

Submitted by Robert Mathias at: October 6, 2008
As the owner of the home that is the subject of this article, I feel it is appropriate to respond to Ms. Foster’s article with facts, as this article is symptomatic of the “one-sided” propaganda that has created the current divisiveness amongst the citizens of Kenilworth. It is my belief that the right to demolish one’s personal property is accompanied by a responsibility to replace such structure with an architecturally-responsible replacement structure. We purchased this home in October 2007 having researched all available materials in the Kenilworth Historical Society prior to closing. There was limited information on the history of the home and the architecture was not attributed to anyone in particular. In fact, this home was specifically ABSENT from the list of homes designed by Franklin Burnham and George Maher. After I purchased the property, I was asked by the village to spend $3000 to hire Kathleen Cummings, a noted historian and a George Maher specialist, to prepare a full historical recount of the property. It was Ms. Cummings that contends that Franklin Burnham designed the home and I am not qualified to dispute that claim. It was also Ms. Cummings that concluded that, while there is no evidence that George Maher later modified the house, it “seemed like his work”. For the record, the work that “seemed” to be Maher’s work involved replacing the exterior cedar shingle with stucco and adding a garage. There is no mention in Ms. Foster’s article about the movement within Kenilworth to maintain the character of the village with respect to demolition, reconstruction and/or renovation. Also absent from this article is any mention of my offer to the Village to voluntarily submit to Design Review, as a way to test (and hopefully perfect) a more formal process to be permanently put into place for our Village. My offer was rejected and I was made to explore alternatives to demolition, as Ms Creizis very accurately accounts for in this article. Following a period of six months, it was determined that the renovation of this home had limitations that surpassed my tolerance for functional compromise and the decision to tear the house down was left to us, the homeowners. Lost in this whole process was a very solid opportunity to gain valuable insight into how a true design review process could be put into place, and for this, the village has been dealt an injustice by a handful of its leaders. As far as Mr. Lindstrom is concerned, I believe it was he that contacted us 24 hours prior to the demolition, once the site had been fenced, equipped and the notice to proceed had been issued to the General Contractor. I am told he (or someone else) also attempted to enter the site once demolition had commenced and was denied access by the general contractor. If these actions constitute “denying him access to remove the staircase and doors” then I am guilty as charged. I had two separate artifact groups visit the home and each valued the residual contents deemed worthy of saving at $1500 and $1600 respectively. I personally removed approximately 30 antique fixtures and doorknobs for which I have no use. I have them in my possession and anyone who would like them should feel free to contact me. The home’s previous owner had removed anything else of any historical value. Therefore, if my decision to proceed with demolition” was irrationally wasteful from a historical perspective and an environmental perspective” then I can assure you it was a decision I did not take lightly. After following all of the Rules, offering to submit to Design Review and carrying this home for a full year, I saw limited currency, real or otherwise, in delaying the demolition. Mr Lindstrom had a full year to contact me and I would have granted him access at any point prior to the day of or before demolition. Lastly, Ms. Foster’s assertion that my family did not return phone calls is simply inaccurate. We received a single call on Wednesday October 1st asking for a comment on what type of home we intended to build. I returned that call on Thursday October 2nd. I now note your article was published October 1st. I would be interested in the guidance you received in Journalism School (assuming you indeed attended one) as to what is an acceptable period of time for a person to respond before you attribute their actions to having “refused” to return your call and under what circumstances it would be acceptable to convert a single call into plural form. Again, if these are the guidelines of acceptable journalism, then I am guilty as charged. My family moved into Kenilworth in 1974 and has maintained a steady presence here since that time. Please do not confuse your radical agenda for any lack of love or concern we have for the character of our village. Sincerely, Robert Mathias

Submitted by Anonymous at: October 4, 2008

Submitted by FlourCityPachyderm at: October 4, 2008
What the editors and readers see as obvious eludes the citizens of Kenilworth. Perhaps the truth is that Kenilworth has come up with a workable solution and that truth eludes the editors and readers. The community is divided about what to due about preservation. Instead of adopting a ridged policy against redevelopment and demolition of the existing housing stock the people of Kenilworth have instituted a series of reasonable and measured ordinances. These local laws take into consideration the rights of the property owners while affording the community an opportunity to slow redevelopment in a orderly lawful process. This seems to be a rational and good process for this community and balances the interests of property owners and those who follow the ridged orthodoxy of preserve everything. Kenilworth seems to have a good model.

Submitted by William at: October 3, 2008
If they want to build a McMansion, these people should build one in the suburbs and not disturb historic neighborhoods with their short-sightedness.

Submitted by Personal Property Rights at: October 3, 2008
This is private property, they have right to do what they choose.

Submitted by sacpreservationist at: October 2, 2008
How sad....these people obviously don't understand the gems they have in their possession!