The Park District of Oak Park has whipped preservationists and architecture supporters into a furious response after it authorized the removal of large portions of the original oak flooring at Pleasant Home, a Prairie-style mansion built in 1897 and designed by architect and Frank Lloyd Wright contemporary, George Washington Maher. The Park District apparently did so ostensibly behind the back of the very agency entrusted with its preservation.
“I’d say they knowingly lied to us,” said Kevin Brown, executive director of the Pleasant Home Foundation.
The white oak floorboards in three first-floor rooms of Pleasant Home, a National Historic Landmark which anchors Mills Park at Home Avenue and Pleasant, were ripped out and discarded in a dumpster over Easter weekend. The foundation was unaware the floors would be replaced, according to Brown, having been informed by the park district that the plan was to restore and repair them.
“This project is meant to not only make the repairs needed, but to prolong the life of the existing floors on the main floor,” Chris Lindgren, a park district superintendent, wrote in a March 8 email to Brown.
Whether that was ever the park district’s intention is now being questioned by the foundation. Listed in the park district’s 2023 fiscal year budget is a goal to “replace first floor flooring at Pleasant Home by April 1” with $40,000 earmarked for the floors.
The park district, according to its Executive Director Jan Arnold, had intended to replace only some of the boards but the floors were later deemed “unsalvageable” and unsafe to walk on. That brought up the cost considerably from what was budgeted. Replacing 1,900 square feet of the roughly 10,000-square-foot mansion is costing $77,680, according to Jan Arnold.
The project is being criticized as unnecessary. Architect and structural engineer Stephen Kelley, who was also the foundation’s restoration committee chair, told Wednesday Journal the original floors, made of old growth wood from a virgin forest, could have been easily repaired.
“[The park district’s] position is that the floor was in really bad condition and someone was going to fall through it,” he said. “My position is that the flooring was in fairly good condition and that Pleasant Home is one of the most firmly built houses in all of Oak Park.”
The new wood floors, despite being white oak, will not compare to what was tossed into the dumpster, according to Kelley, who has worked in historic preservation for 40 years. That wood is “irreplaceable.” The floors being put in now were of farmed wood.
“It’s not going to be as hard as the original flooring and it’s not going to wear as well,” said Kelley, who happened to be on a walk in Mills Park last weekend when crews were ripping out the original flooring.
Pleasant Home has been under the ownership of the park district since 1939. The Pleasant Home Foundation, which started as a park district task force, is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and restoring Pleasant Home, a National Historic Landmark. The two entities are separate but are intended to work in collaboration with each other.
That collaboration is now under substantial strain, as many involved with the foundation feel burned by the park district over its treatment of the historic floors. Kelley has resigned because of the situation, although he plans to stay until the flooring issue is resolved. The park district’s removal of the flooring has also led donors to reconsider contributing financially to the foundation.
“People are pulling their support of us because we don’t have the ability to hold the park district accountable or to bring them to the table to make sure that projects like this move forward in a way that’s sensitive to the house,” said Brown, who fears the new floors will render Pleasant Home ineligible for historic preservation grants.
In a Statement from Pleasant Home Foundation:
"Beyond our disappointment to the reality that these materials have been lost to Pleasant Home forever, only to end up unceremoniously in a landfill, we’re even more disappointed that the Park District chose to ignore its commitment to our organization and to the citizens of Oak Park by refusing to engage with us in constructive conversations with enough lead time to properly plan this project. Posted on their website in January of this year, we were also disappointed to find that the Park District included a $40,000 line item to “replace first floor flooring at Pleasant Home” in their 2023 budget; it seems as if this had been the plan all along. While we’re obviously hurt and disappointed by this, we also take full responsibility for not seeking out and reviewing that 397-page document, and we realize that if we had, PHF could’ve possibly avoided this outcome by insisting the Park District collaborate with us to address that plan. That said, we also feel that a part of the role of the liaison between PHF and the Park District Board (a Park District board member) is to inform us of budgetary items outside of the normal scope of supplies and routine maintenance at Pleasant Home.
While we cannot alter the course of history, we do plan to work hard to address our relationship with the Park District, and to find a way to move forward in a way that’s mutually beneficial for both organizations, the community, and for Pleasant Home. That path forward must include an honest and open-minded effort on the part of the Park District, as we’re committed to upholding the values our organization has always stood for and has always demonstrated; the future of an internationally significant work of architectural art, and an icon in the village of Oak Park depends on it." Read the entire Statement from Pleasant Home Foundation here.