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City Stands Firm Against Razing Old Town Cottage

By Ted Cox | December 9, 2016 5:38pm | Updated on December 12, 2016 8:06am
 The owners want to demolish this Old Town worker cottage at 1639 N. North Park Ave.
The owners want to demolish this Old Town worker cottage at 1639 N. North Park Ave.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

CITY HALL — City attorneys stood firm Friday against issuing a demolition permit for an Old Town Triangle worker cottage at 1639 N. North Park Ave.

Attorneys for the Department of Planning and Development argued against razing the cottage at a public hearing Friday after the Commission on Chicago Landmarks denied the demolition permit unanimously in October.

Attorney Ellen McLaughlin stated that the only issue was whether the building contributes to the Old Town Triangle District as an example of a worker cottage built in the years following the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. In that case, she added, demolition would be automatically ruled out according to the ordinance creating the district in 1977.

 Attorney Christopher Haris called the cottage at 1639 N. North Park Ave.
Attorney Christopher Haris called the cottage at 1639 N. North Park Ave. "a textbook example of urban deterioration."
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

McLaughlin presented expert testimony stating that it was and is, and went on to call the cottages scattered throughout the district "an important part of the story of the Old Town Triangle."

Yet Christopher Haris, attorney for the estate of John Waters, who owned the building until his death in 2011, countered that the building "intrudes" on the commercial rental properties that now surround it, adding, "We say emphatically, no, it is not contributing to the district."

Labeling it "a property trapped under a historical ordinance," Haris called it "a textbook example of urban deterioration," adding, "There is nothing architecturally significant about this property whatsoever."

Edward Torrez begged to differ, however. The former Landmarks commissioner under the Richard M. Daley administration, was brought in as an expert witness and defended the building.

"It truly is a resource and a treasure and should be valued," Torrez said. "The demolition of this property will have an adverse effect to the character of this district."

Torrez rejected the idea that it should be eligible for demolition because the building stood out against the others that now surround it on the block.

"I'm looking at the whole district," he said, not just the one block. Torrez said with its pitched roof, second-story entry (even without the stairs) and wood-frame construction atop a masonry foundation, it fit all the criteria of the worker cottages found throughout the area in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Dan Waters, brother of John Waters, had testified that it was "not consistent with the character of the neighborhood," and Rose Waters, his wife, added, "It is just a very tiny structure between two behemoths."

Torrez countered that made it more worthy of preservation. "I think it's more valuable because it is the only one on the block," he said. Torrez defended its small stature and "modest" appointments, saying, "I feel that's kind of the beauty of it."

Haris tried to argue that it now "intrudes" on the tone set by the other buildings on the block, and brought in immediate neighbors to testify on that.

John Dvorak called the building "a nuisance," saying, "I think it would be an improvement to knock this down and build something different there that would fill up the space."

Haris was trying to expand on language setting standards for what can be built in the district, in an attempt to set the same standards for what can be demolished. "It matters with new construction, and it should matter when we're demolishing a property," he said.

McLaughlin rejected that, charging that Haris' intent was to "distract" from the essential issue of whether it fit the criteria for protection as an Old Town worker cottage, which it clearly did.

Others offering public comment agreed. Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, supported the permit denial, saying, "We feel this cottage is significant, and we encourage its preservation and restoration."

Karl Hjerpe, of the Old Town Triangle Association, said approving demolition would make "a mockery of the landmarks concept."

"This cottage is irreplaceable," said local resident Diane Gonzalez. "But it is repairable."

Laurie Miller, a local resident and an architect, charged the Waters family with "intentional neglect," saying, "We urge the commission to save the structure."

Haris denied the Waters family was out to profit from demolition and redevelopment on the property, calling that "the least of their concerns."

Although not at the hearing, Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) has also gone on record opposing demolition.

"It is historic. It is a contributing element to the landmark district in the Old Town Triangle," Hopkins said Thursday. "It can be saved. It's not in great condition, I'll concede that, [but] it's not in imminent danger of collapse, and it's not a hazard. It will require investment, but it could be saved."

The Commission on Chicago Landmarks now considers the testimony from the hearing and makes a final decision on whether to grant or deny the demolition permit at its next meeting, Jan. 5.

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