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Removal of Stairs at Historic Wicker Park Home Supported by Architects

 George Menninger in front of his home at 1937 W. Evergreen Ave. in Wicker Park.
George Menninger in front of his home at 1937 W. Evergreen Ave. in Wicker Park.
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DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser

DOWNTOWN — A Wicker Park couple who have battled the city for months to remove a staircase outside their home saw their fight near its end in a six-hour, "'Monty Python'-like" meeting Tuesday.

George Menninger and Ann Cheeseman have sought the city Landmark Commission's permission to remove the staircase, which they say is "dangerous," but were denied in May.

At a public hearing Tuesday, their attorney, Tom Ferguson, sparred with city attorneys William Aguiar and Ellen McLaughlin over Menninger and Cheeseman's safety concerns, remodeling plans and the necessity of the staircase to preserve the home's historical character.

The next hearing is Aug. 6. The fate of the staircase will be decided at the meeting.

Kelly Bauer says the meeting played out similar to a courtroom drama:

City approval is needed to remove the stairs since the home is in Wicker Park's Historic Landmark District. The wooden stairs are nearly 10½ feet high and 6 feet wide. They are not original to the home, having been added when the workman's cottage was lifted and made into a two-flat in the early 1900s, but the city argued they are a significant historic feature. They lead up to a door that is being used as a window.

Cheeseman and Menninger wanted to remove the stairs but preserve the window's appearance of a door to avoid damaging the home's historical character.

Menninger and Cheeseman testified that the steep staircase poses a safety risk — with Menninger's father having twisted his ankle on it — while architects Wayne Zuschlag and Sam Marts, who have worked on historical projects and said they know the Wicker Park area, said they didn't think removing the staircase would damage the home's historical character.

Zuschlag argued the stairs are less important to the home's historic nature than its other features, like the lentils/sills around its windows.

Zuschlag also argued the stairs are "dangerous" because their width makes it difficult to hold both railings at once, they are steep and the railings wiggle. He said the stairs could be rebuilt to be safer, as the city has suggested, but then they wouldn't be historically accurate.

"That stair doesn't belong there," Zuschlag said. "These stairs as they are configured detract from the historic character of the home.

"It's a fine building except for the stairs."

Commission remember Mary Ann Smith said Ferguson and his witnesses' points about safety were "irrelevant" because the commission was focused on the stairs' historical character. She advised Menninger and Cheeseman to take points about safety to another city department.

The city called James Peters, an architect who has specialized in preservation and planning and who has worked for the city, to testify that removing the staircase would harm the home's historical character.

Peters said removing the stairs would have a "tremendously adverse effect" on the home's historical character based on accepted preservation criteria like the Secretary of Interior's Standards, which are guidelines for preserving and rehabbing historic properties. 

"They're wood. They're wide. They lead to a historic second-floor entrance," Peters said.

The hearing went on for six hours, with Smith saying the testimony was "'Monty Python'-like" when Zuschlag and Aguiar went back and forth over Zuschlag's response to a question. At points, those attending the hearing interrupted the attorneys, attorneys had to tell witnesses to answer their questions and people left due to the meeting's length.

Menninger said the hearing went "so-so," although he was disappointed that his attorney, Ferguson, was not allowed to present information about other homes in Wicker Park that have had their exterior staircases removed and was not able to put forth a "good case" for safety.

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