A unanimous decision by the Lake Forest Historic Preservation Commission on Wednesday night to recommend denial of a petition by Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart to remove part of the former Barat College campus from the Historic District may not be a setback for plans to donate the land to the private Lake Forest school.
However, the condition attached to the donation was the demolition of the Old Main building before the land would become the property of Woodlands, Lake Forest resident and Woodlands trustee Ralph Elwart told a crowd of more than 150 people Sept. 20 at a Woodlands community meeting.
Less than two weeks later, the Lake Forest City Council discussed the best way to facilitate the gift and decided Oct. 4 that removal of Old Main from the Historic District was the best way to proceed. The City Council then referred the matter to the commission for action Wednesday.
Public Comment Doesn’t Dissuade Woodlands
Wednesday night’s standing-room-only crowd of more than 60 people crammed the City Council Chambers as 15 voiced their opinion. Five favored the proposal while 10 were opposed. The ruling did not dampen Elwart’s enthusiasm.
“No, not at all,” Elwart said after the meeting when asked if the commission’s decision would slow the plan. “We will move on to the next step in the process.”
That next step could come as soon as the City Council’s Nov. 7 meeting. The council either can accept the commission’s recommendation or vote to remove the property from the Historic District, according to Community Development Director Catherine Czerniak.
Many of the commissioners who opposed the idea as well as the people who objected were more concerned with potential future effects of removing a property from the Historic District than blocking the gift to Woodlands.
“It’s not our job to be obstructionists,” Commission Chairman Kurt Pairitz said. “It is our duty to protect. The character of Lake Forest goes beyond buildings. This may be more appropriate for the City Council. This is impossible for us to do.”
Against Setting Precedent
People who urged the commission to recommend against the petition were less opposed to the demolition of Old Main than they were to creating a precedent that could portend other unintended effects in the future.
“Stay pure to your cause,” Rommy Lopat of Lake Forest urged the commission. “We love Woodlands, we love the Order of the Sacred Heart and we love historic places. Stay true to your mission.”
Others, like Lou Atsaves, whose Lake Forest home backs up to the former Barat property, have become disenchanted with the deterioration of Old Main and its effect on the neighborhood.
“I’ve seen Old Main deteriorate (over the last 10 years) and it has not been a pretty picture,” Atsaves said. “Through it all Woodlands Academy has been a good neighbor. I believe they will continue to be a good neighbor. I can see a white elephant getting worse. It’s time to let it go.”
Commissioner Susan Athenson wanted to learn more about the donors and their reasons for remaining anonymous. She asked Elwart if the donors were Lake Forest residents, because she hoped to learn if they understood the community. She also wanted to know why the donors wanted Old Main razed.
“We couldn’t receive the gift if the building was left standing,” Elwart said. “We would have to spend money we don’t have to restore it or let it further deteriorate.”
“I’m certain the donor saw that,” he added when Athenson asked if it was Woodlands’ request for demolition.
Preserve Old Main
At least one person in the room, Lake Forest resident Leslie Stevens, argued Old Main could be preserved. She represented one of the unsuccessful bidders on the property that planned to restore the building into a retirement community.
“We would restore the building and open it up to the community,” Stevens said. “It is possible to do this. There would be an indoor swimming pool that would be available to Woodlands as well.”
Ivan Kane, representing LaSalle 115 Holdings LLC, the property owner, said the bid by Stevens’ company bid “did not come close to making the short list.” Stevens later countered the bid was higher than Kane intimated.