January 30, 2018

A Jaw-Dropping House in Highwood

I was browsing through HAARGIS, Illinois's database of historic buildings, and came across this jaw-dropping house in Highwood.

115 Michigan, Highwood. This photo was taken in the early 1970's and every original detail looks intact, from the horseshoe arches over the windows to the half-moon minaret. From HAARGIS.

I realized that I had just driven down that same street while taking photos of Sears houses in the area. How could I possibly have missed this stunning house?

You guessed it: the house is no longer there. It was demolished in 1986 as a bunch of new houses were built on the same block.

115 Michigan today. Screenshot from Google Streetview.

The original residence was built in the mid-1920's for Oliver Hogue, a sales director for Commonwealth Edison. According to the owners, the house was designed by noted architect Bertram A. Weber (more likely White & Weber). A real estate ad from 1982 said that the house was recently renovated, so it's not like it was in disrepair.

And from what I can tell, it doesn't seem like anyone tried to save the Hogue house, or even cared.

1982 ad in the Chicago Tribune.

So what does this have to do with Sears homes?

This house in Highwood and other historic residences are regularly demolished throughout the Chicago suburbs. Hundreds of Sears homes have been lost already. People often ask me: why don't homeowners landmark their Sears homes with the federal government so that they are protected from future demolition?

A Sears Vallonia being demolished in Berwyn. Still photo from Shaw Media YouTube channel.

Unfortunately, even if a property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it can still be demolished.  Federal or state governments have little authority to stop anyone from demolishing or altering a National Register-listed property.  Status on the National Register is largely honorific. The only time the federal government can intercede is if the owner takes preservation tax credits. 

The true power to prevent demolitions (or deterioration through neglect) lies with local governments. Not all municipalities have preservation ordinances, and some ordinances have more "bite" than others. Some towns can delay demolition permits, and some can outright prohibit demolition of landmarks. But even with such ordinances in place, owners can skirt the rules by claiming economic hardship or by rescinding landmark designation.

Preservation law is a complicated subject, and I'm not claiming to be an expert. The important takeaway is that there is no solid legal protection for any structure. This is why we still hear about Frank Lloyd Wright buildings and historic residences in the Chicago area being demolished.

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