The front facade of one of the oldest houses in Winnetka may be spared from the wrecking ball, thanks to the Winnetka's Zoning Board of Appeals recent unanimous vote to recommend zoning relief to the couple that owns the historic "Gage House" at 1175 Whitebridge Hill Road.
"We've never been able to save any portion of a historic home in the village in all the years I've been involved in village government," said Louise Holland, chair of the Winnetka Landmark Preservation Commission. "That's since the initiation of the landmark ordinance in the late 1980s."
"I don't recall any portion being saved when the application was asking for a demolition," she added. "I wouldn't call it a victory. I'd say it's a wonderful working together of owners and neighbors to preserve this facade."
Glencoe resident John O'Brien and his wife and bought the 155-year-old lakefront home for about $6.5 million more than two years ago. While it's a sentimental landmark in Winnetka, it is not protected by any kind of significant national or state historic designation. So O'Brien could tear it down at any time after securing a demolition permit from the village, officials said.
Instead, O'Brien chose to work with preservationists and those living near the Gage House to try and reach a compromise that would see the historic front facade of the house saved.
"This facade is so very important to the historic aspects of the house," Holland said.
The Gage House was built in 1857 by Jared Gage, and called "Lakeside" because of its location on the lake, preservationists said, adding that the structure has a rich historical and architectural heritage. In September of 1860, the steamship Lady Elgin, sank below the home in Lake Michigan, according to the Winnetka Historical Society.
Survivors of this famous wreck were carried to this residence, which served as a temporary hospital. Later the home belonged to the Scott Family, of Carson Pirie Scott.
The home also served as a safe house for the Underground Railroad. Martin Luther King, Jr. also stayed at this historic home and gave a few speeches there. Many of the Italianate features were removed when the home was converted in the 1920s to a Classical Revival style.
The variance granted by the Zoning Board of Appeals allows O'Brien to move the entire front facade of the house 45 feet back into the property and to build the new house 42 inches into a side yard.
Some on the zoning board asked why O'Brien couldn't simply "shave off" three feet from his planned expansion into the sideyard in order to avoid getting a variance, but O'Brien said that would be impractical.
"I know it sounds easy," he said. "Why don't you shave inches here and feet there, but it's not."
"We've been at this for a couple of years now," he said. "We've worked hard with the neighbors, who we respect. I think we've respected their wishes all along. We've tried very hard to work with them."
Zoning Board of Appeals chair Joni Johnson commended O'Brien for working with preservationists and neighbors. She also said O'Brien deserved credit for spending considerable time and money to save the front facade of the house, although he was not required to, and in fact could have demolished the facade with the rest of the house.
"The owners could have subdivided the lot, which would have changed the character extremely," Johnson said. "They could have obviously demolished the house after the 60-day temporary demolition delay was listed, which I think was June 2."
"They have worked for a couple of years with the landmark preservation council to try and preserve what they can of the house, which is more than obviously a lot of homeowners with substantial properties do," she added. "They are preserving a very large estate, which again is also worthy of note."
The zoning board's recommendation goes to the village board for a final vote in coming weeks.
"We hope that the village council will grant that variation with their approval," said Holland.
If the village board signs off on the variances as the zoning board recommends, O'Brien said he would start demolition and construction immediately and hopes to move into the new house within two years.
"The faster the better," he said. "We're hoping to start right away."
He also said he plans to restore some of the colonial revival features of the house that have been removed over the years.
"It feels good," O'Brien said of the recommendation. "My wife and I, that's who we are. We're preservationists at heart. It's exciting for us."