More than four decades ago, the DuPage County Forest Preserve District acquired two historic farm houses on opposite sides of the county.
One of the houses, dating to the 1880s, now is part of Kline Creek Farm in West Chicago, a living-history museum depicting local farm life in the 1890s. Each year, tens of thousands of people visit the site, which is part of the Timber Ridge Forest Preserve.
The other house, an 1840s Oak Cottage and neighboring barn, has for decades stood unused at the intersection of Greene and Hobson roads near Naperville.
Originally, it was understood that the property — the Greene Farm — would be used for cultural, educational, historical and recreation purposes. So far, though, it’s only been an aesthetic feature for people using the bike trail at Greene Valley Forest Preserve.
Forest preserve Commissioner Mary Lou Wehrli says what happened to Oak Cottage and the Greene Farm Barn illustrate why the forest preserve district must take another look at its long-standing policy for developing, preserving and operating historic structures.
“Historic structures have not had, in my opinion and experience, a visible place or role within the mission of the forest preserve,” Wehrli said.
And while the district has partnered with not-for-profit groups to breathe new life into structures like Graue Mill in Oak Brook and Danada House in Wheaton, that hasn’t been the case for all its buildings.
The most recent example of a district-owned structure that’s fallen into disrepair is the McKee House at Churchill Woods Forest Preserve near Glen Ellyn.
The two-story limestone house and a neighboring administration building were built in 1936 by the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The forest preserve used the administration building as its headquarters between 1936 and 1982. The house originally was used by Robert McKee, the district’s first superintendent. Other superintendents and executive directors lived in the home until 1996, when it became a guard house. The house has been vacant since 2002.
The district recently approved an architectural study at the site to determine if the house can be saved.
Wehrli says the district has only itself to blame for the leaky roof, mold and other damage to the McKee House.
“You poke your head into a window of the McKee House or Oak Cottage and you look at the deterioration that takes place because the forest preserve does nothing,” Wehrli said. “And they have done nothing on several historic structures.”
Whatever caused some district buildings to get less attention than others, Wehrli says she hopes revising the policy can help “put into context the mission of the forest preserve as it relates to historic structures.”
A public discussion about the policy hasn’t yet been scheduled, but commissioners have been asked to review the document and decide what kind of changes they would like to propose.
Commissioner Tim Whelan says the review is long overdue because the existing policy dates to 1986.
“There has been an inconsistency in the way they’ve dealt with the buildings,” Whelan said.
While the forest preserve recently spent $1.4 million to stabilize the Greene Barn, Whelan said the structure wasn’t restored to historical standards.
“It’s been restored with steel beams and things like that,” Whelan said. “And it’s still closed.”
He said any policy regarding historic district-owned buildings should require that each structure be given a purpose.
“It’s not just to sit there and look at,” he said.
Forest preserve President Dewey Pierotti said a revised policy could list what criteria must be met before a structure is deemed worthy of preservation.
“We have a method of evaluating if we want to buy land,” Pierotti said. “There’s an evaluation process. So why don’t we have the same thing when we have historical buildings? We should have a way to determine whether it should be preserved or not.”
The issue of how to pay for preservation projects also could be addressed.
Commissioner Shannon Burns said she doesn’t want to see money that could be spent on natural resources used to restore buildings.
“The forest preserve has a mission to preserve, but first to preserve the land,” Burns said. “Then if there’s money left over, we can preserve buildings.”
Burns and others agree that the key to saving buildings is for the district to partner with community groups.
“What I would like to see is the district share its expertise in terms of manpower expertise and consulting.” Burns said. “Then let the community raise the money to do it.”