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Preservationist or Pest for Short

Marty Hackl, self-appointed protector of lesser Prairie School lights, is about to lose his latest fight. But there's always another one coming.



You'd think Marty Hackl would be happy. The River Forest Women's Club--a green-stained, board-and-batten 1913 building designed by Prairie School architect William Drummond--is under contract to be sold to a private buyer with the money needed for its restoration. The structure, on the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois' ten-most-endangered list for the last two years, is now safe from the wrecking ball. It won't be sold to developers eager to build on its double lot.

But Hackl is disappointed. A preservationist and longtime Oak Park resident who recently moved to River Forest, he's kept tabs on the building for years. The women's club, though private since its founding as an arts society in 1894, allowed its auditorium to be used as a public performance space, and Hackl often reserved time in it to practice his violin. A restoration consultant and contractor, he noticed some maintenance problems, but overall the structure appeared to be sound.

Still, it was clear that the women's club was having trouble keeping up the building. In 2000 they placed an announcement in local papers soliciting presentations from other organizations interested in taking over care of the facility. Hackl and Laura Good, a real estate agent specializing in historic properties and singer who'd practiced and performed in the auditorium, put together a proposal for turning the club into a community arts foundation. He says they never heard back from club representatives. (River Forest Women's Club president Marilyn Organ refuses to comment on the matter.) Instead, maintenance of the building wound up in the hands of the River Forest Park District.

The building's condition continued to deteriorate. The window frames were crumbling and there were leaks in the roof. In 2003 Hackl held a benefit concert to raise funds for repairs. He offered several times to fix the windows for free, but says that Organ turned him down. Meanwhile, there were signs that the lot was vulnerable. A 2003 draft of the Comprehensive Plan for River Forest identified the site as one with potential for a development of single-family homes.

This April, when word of a potential sale came out, Hackl kicked into high gear, e-mailing friends and acquaintances and gathering some 91 pledges to join the club (male members have been accepted since the 80s). Their dues would help raise needed funds, he reasoned, and their number could help pressure the club to keep the facility open for public use. The response was a form letter dated May 23. "Membership in the RFWC is subject to its bylaws, which include sponsorship for membership by two members," it said. "The RFWC does not meet during the summer but will resume its meetings in October 2005, at which time new membership will certainly be considered by the membership committee." By then, of course, the building will have been sold.

The buyer--Paul Coffey, director of the undergraduate division at the School of Art Institute--has agreed to let the club continue to meet at the building, and the terms of a preservation easement tied to it require him to open it to the public once a year. But Hackl says the transaction robs the community of an important public space. He believes this is antithetical not only to Drummond's intentions as a member of the Prairie School, but to the aims and ideals of the club itself. "What a great time, a great movement, all these progressive women's organizations," he says. "They were really into bettering the community through education and art. How could people like that just let it go?"

Hackl became interested in Prairie School architecture and its preservation largely through his research into the life and career of John S. Van Bergen, an architect who worked in Frank Lloyd Wright's studio for a little less than a year, just before Wright fled to Europe with his mistress in 1909, effectively closing up the shop. In 1994 Hackl and his family bought a 1914 Oak Park home designed by Van Bergen, one of three built for a local florist. Then a jobbing musician who did some small contracting on the side, Hackl was impressed by Van Bergen's solid workmanship and attention to detail. He started to catalog and study the architect's work.

After Wright's departure Van Bergen developed his own clientele in the Chicago area until 1954, when he moved to California. A fire ten years later destroyed many of his records and blueprints, and he died there in 1969. But many Van Bergen structures still stand, in Highland Park, Oak Park, River Forest, and other western and North Shore suburbs. Though most of the buildings Hackl has identified in an extensive search are single-family homes, the architect was also commissioned to design schools, additions, and a few commercial buildings.

Van Bergen's work throughout his career showed Prairie School influences, especially in his roofs, with their overhanging eaves, wooden trim, and horizontal lines. He paid meticulous attention to his clients' needs and to the structures' natural settings. Even the simplest houses of his early career, built on a square plan, flow organically and use natural materials like stone and cedar. Living rooms open up into surprisingly grand spaces, with vaulted ceilings, large fireplaces, and lovely views. Van Bergen got to know the eminent landscape architect Jens Jensen when they both lived in Highland Park, and Jensen almost certainly influenced his work. His later buildings in California diverge from the Prairie style--long, low structures that are simpler but also more refined. The natural setting became even more important, to the point that Van Bergen would match colors, textures, and materials to the native soil and greenery. He was also known for his naturally cooling "ponded" roofs, which flooded in summer.

Using a list of buildings known to have been designed by Van Bergen, Hackl started knocking on doors. "I would ring these doorbells, and ten minutes later we'd be having lunch...and a half hour later I'm walking out of their house with blueprints," he says. A couple of visits to one of Van Bergen's daughters in California yielded some old files, account ledgers, family photos, and invaluable recollections. He looked up (and has become friends with) Walter Sobel, a former draftsman of Van Bergen's who lives in a Wright home in Wilmette. Hackl has folders full of correspondence and piles of blueprints, much of which he stores under his bed.

In 1988 Hackl started putting out a newsletter for Van Bergen home owners and other interested parties. This has since morphed into a book-length catalog of buildings with photos, descriptions, and building plans, plus a short illustrated biography of Van Bergen. In 1999, after failing to interest any publishers, Hackl published the book himself. (The book can be ordered at Hackl's Web site,; it's also available there on CD-ROM.) Now he's completed a revision and is thinking about doing another edition. His catalog is not, Hackl acknowledges, a scholarly work. "I've had scholars tell me . . . I didn't footnote anything correctly in my book," he says.

"I don't care if his background isn't scholarly, but his approach should be," says John Thorpe, a restoration architect who specializes in Prairie-style buildings and also owns a Van Bergen house in Oak Park. Thorpe does acknowledge the architectural community's debt to Hackl. He's used the book as a guide during meetings of a club for Van Bergen home owners: "I just held up his book and said, 'Marty's already done [the work], so we can just look at each other's houses and have brunch,'" he says. But Thorpe cautions against taking certain of Hackl's conclusions as fact. For instance, Van Bergen's daughter told Hackl her father got the idea to use stratified limestone from rock outcroppings they saw on vacations to Wisconsin. Thorpe points out that Jensen was using piled limestone in his work as well. "This is where scholars are careful," he says.

But no one doubts Hackl's enterprise. "He's dug up all kinds of things," says Paul Kruty, an architecture professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who's written books on Wright and is an authority on the work of Prairie School architect Walter Burley Griffin. "He has opinions on what surfaces should be, what restoration should be like. People like me rely on him for technical information." Kruty says that Hackl can get "carried away" sometimes. But, he adds, "I wish every Prairie-style architect had someone like that."

Through a blog and a mailing list of over 100 people--some preservationists with their own mailing lists, others fellow musicians, still others simply interested friends or acquaintances--Hackl stays on top of news about significant buildings and gets the word out when they're threatened. Recent e-mails have included updates on endangered sites, announcements of architecture tours he's planning, a rhapsody about seeing a deer in Thatcher Woods, and dismal assessments of the Bush administration.

Many homes by former Wright employees and associates are vulnerable to teardown because their designers aren't recognized. "These buildings are not as well protected because they're not Wrights," Hackl says. Occasionally, he says, tourists passing by his house would "come up and ask, 'Is this a Frank Lloyd Wright?' And you go, 'No, it's by John Van Bergen.' And all of a sudden they turn around and walk away." He laughs. "You liked it when you thought it was a Wright!"

The principal of Braeside School, a 1927 building in Highland Park that's listed on the National Historic Register, had been instructed so well by Hackl in the details of Van Bergen's work that during the building of an addition a few years ago she ran out and stopped workers when she noticed them installing fake limestone. Eventually she persuaded the school board to put up the extra money for the real thing. Last January Hackl and Frank Lipo, executive director of the Oak Park-River Forest Historical Society, appeared before the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission to talk about four Van Bergen field houses in Oak Park, which they worried were going to be demolished and replaced. Hackl and Lipo spoke for an hour or so, emphasizing Van Bergen's research on children and schools, the concept of leisure--new in the architect's time--and the field houses' place in the village's history. Ultimately, Oak Park officials "decided there wasn't enough money [to build new structures], which we told them at the beginning," says Hackl. "We just appealed to the reasoning part of their thinking. But . . . the buildings will be protected until next round, maybe in ten years."

Hackl's particularly concerned about houses that come on the market when an owner becomes ill, dies, or just can't afford the upkeep anymore. Two years ago, after he discovered that Krich House, a Van Bergen home in East Dundee, was being sold by the elderly owner's family, he got the real estate agent to make note of its architectural significance in the listing, along with Hackl's name and Web address. He was contacted by the eventual buyer, who's maintained the house in its original condition.

A few months ago Hackl sold his own Van Bergen home and moved himself, his wife, Eva, and their teenage daughter into a modest condo in River Forest. He has his eye on another Van Bergen, this one in Lake Zurich. The house, situated on a huge secluded lot, is a prime example of Van Bergen's subtle style, with a round hearth fireplace, built-in cabinetry, an elegant screened veranda, and expert siting.

Hackl met the elderly owners of the house seven or eight years ago, and as he got to know them he expressed interest in buying it. The woman died a few years back, and the man has become increasingly frail. Hackl visits him from time to time, to check up on him--and on the house. "We asked for a contract for right of first refusal, but he just doesn't want to go to any of those places," Hackl says. "He says if he ever sells it he'll let us know....We'd be happy to purchase the house, take care of it, and he could live there as long as he wants."

Last month the owner's son, who had been sympathetic to Hackl's concerns, unexpectedly died after hip surgery. Meanwhile, Hackl has calculated that in a few months the price of the land will be more than he and Eva can afford.

"It's either we're going to buy it or a developer's going to buy it," he says. The house is surrounded by McMansions. "The only person who would be attracted to it is a developer," Hackl frets. "A developer would be nuts not to put a big house out here, because he could make a lot of money."

The position Hackl has appointed himself to isn't for someone who wants to be liked. "It's hard to get a lot of public support behind you unless there's a crisis," he says. But he believes he's learned what heralds one--the death of an organization or spouse, rising taxes or land values, the deployment of certain key words like firetrap or outdated. "Almost everyone who deals in preservation knows what those signals are, and you can't wait until they're alarming to do anything," he says. "At the same time, you're questioning yourself--am I being alarmist, am I imagining this?

"Now I'm the bad guy, picking on those poor old women" in the River Forest club, he says. "I really like them and don't want to hurt them. But I know I am. It really sucks. If I didn't do it, I'd feel really bad about not doing something. I'm not alone. I think everyone who does this thinks the same thing." He pauses. "Or else they like to have lots of enemies."

Still, Hackl didn't mince words in his online newsletter in May, accusing the club members of preferring to lose their building over opening their membership, and criticizing the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois--a group he had up till recently worked with--of ignoring the wishes of the community. LPCI president David Bahlman wouldn't comment on Hackl, his split with the group, or his efforts, but called the sale to a private buyer the best-case scenario. "We have a private buyer who is willing to donate an easement on the property and has the means to rehabilitate the property immediately," he told me. "The well-being of the structure itself is what's most important here."

Hackl was initially involved in LPCI's efforts to get an easement but says, "They barely respond to me in a positive way anymore, just e-mail conversations--'Keep your nose out of it.' Their concern is basically that with an easement, it won't get torn down. I have a different opinion, that it's better in the long term to keep it with an organization."

There are others besides Hackl who haven't resigned themselves to the club's sale to a private owner. Patti O'Connor, an attorney who's lived in River Forest for more than 20 years, is still trying to find an organization to take over the building--an effort that Hackl says he plans to stay out of. O'Connor says that after holding a baby shower for her daughter at the club about five months ago she tried to join the women's group and even attended a meeting, which she calls a "tea party" at which no business was discussed. Ultimately, she says, president Marilyn Organ told her the club wasn't accepting new members. "Then I read in the paper that this building is being sold for $400,000," she says. "The property is obviously worth more, even in its dilapidated state." O'Connor is acquainted with Paul Coffey and calls him "a wonderful human being." "It's not that I would say at the end [it] couldn't go to Paul Coffey--there's no better person," she says. "It's just that [the sale] is against the 100-year-old premise of the club, and the rules of the club. They need to give the club to another 501(c)3 organization and not sell it for money. . . . There are alternative organizations that would love that building. The historical society would love that building."

On June 13 O'Connor called a meeting for club members and community residents, and about 18 people showed up--including Laura Good and a smattering of musicians, one of whom, Don Schmalz, said the building had been part of his life for 50 years. Hackl attended too, though he made sure that everyone knew the meeting was O'Connor's idea. One club member who turned up refused to comment on anything for the record.

O'Connor passed around photocopies of a February 10 letter from the Oak Park-River Forest Historical Society to Organ and the club's attorney. In it, historical society president Laurel McMahon wrote that its board of directors "expressed unanimous support for beginning formal discussions with the leadership of the River Forest Women's Club. . . . We believe that the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest would be an ideal steward of the building if the Club leaders would entrust it to us. We stand able and willing to commit to preserving the building for the good of the community in perpetuity and would commit to such preservation in writing." Coffey, who declined to comment for this article, didn't attend the meeting, but O'Connor said she had come directly from seeing him. She said he'd told her that if the women's club decided it wanted to arrange a deal with the historical society or some other nonprofit organization, he'd be willing to withdraw his offer.

Organ disputes the claims made by Hackl and other critics of the sale, but declined to comment until the third week of June, presumably after the closing. She would only say that "the River Forest Women's Club is a private club. It's not a public building. That's the way it's always been."

The battle seems lost, but Hackl hasn't given up: "Always looking forward, never back," he e-mailed me recently. "Idealism and that sort of drive--it's not everyone's cup of tea," says Frank Lipo. But it can be effective. "He kind of pushes the envelope, and that sometimes allows for compromise or gets something discussed that wouldn't be." Lipo admits that Hackl's approach is "uncomfortable for some people, including myself at certain points. . . . But he has thought it out; he's not doing it because he enjoys being lonely out there."

John Thorpe, the restoration architect, sees it a little differently. Hackl "decides something, and that's not a good way to win friends and influence people," he says. "He's a zealot. But to be an advocate for preservation you do have to be a zealot."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni, Marty Hackl.

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