Save Brainerd works toward preserving history
Libertyville's historic building ordinance is welcomed by preservationists like Arlene Lane, Jenny Barry and Lynne Stetz at the Cook House. But not all residents agree with it. | Joe Cyganowski~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 22, 2013 2:46AM
LIBERTYVILLE — Because Libertyville is home to many historic buildings that date back to the early 20th century, it has always sparked preservationists’ passions.
But soon, even residents who are not history buffs may have to decide if they want to foot the bill to keep one of these buildings intact.
A group of local citizens, calling themselves Save Brainerd, is advocating to have a measure placed on the spring 2014 ballot that would ask residents whether to raise taxes to preserve and restore the former Brainerd High School building.
Group members say the building could be used as a community and performing arts center, and the preservation is eco-friendly too.
“The greenest building is the one that’s already built,” Brainerd board member Jill Harkaway said.
But not all community members are convinced saving Brainerd is the best course. And some are still debating whether a historic preservation ordinance that Libertyville leaders passed about a year ago is a fair idea for building owners.
The performing arts center idea was discussed with local theater groups roughly a year ago. Brainerd board members met with representatives from the Encore Theater, Liberty Town Productions and Wishing Star Theatre.
Encore’s Bob Silton said he left the meeting convinced of the Brainerd group’s commitment, but unsure of the building’s future plans.
“We thought they would have something specific for us, but they were more looking for ideas,” he said. “We need a space. Is that the Brainerd space? I don’t know,” Silton said.
Others are less sure if the Brainerd board’s intentions to create a performing arts center are rock-solid. Barry Reszel, of Liberty Town Productions, said he doesn’t know if the idea would come to fruition and wonders if the board is more interested in saving the building — and less so in what they’ll do with it.
Board member Harkaway concedes that there is sentimentality about the building among some board members, specifically those who went to high school at Brainerd. But she dismissed the idea that the primary reason for saving Brainerd is a preservationist one.
“I don’t believe that’s the overall focus of this board,” she said. “I think they’re more civic and community-minded.”
‘OUR PAST IS OUR FUTURE’
Just as the Brainerd group met with theater heads last year, village officials were also passing a historic preservation ordinance.
Some community members say it was a long time coming. MainStreet Libertyville Director Pam Hume said an ordinance was first proposed about 10 years ago by one of her organization’s committees, but “it was pushed into that committee and languished there.”
But with the election of the administration led by Terry Weppler in 2009, there was a renewed push.
“There was a new mayor and he wanted to protect the integrity of the downtown,” Hume said.
The new ordinance was only the first step in what will be a new process for proposed teardowns or changes to buildings deemed historic. Such designations will be made by a Historic Preservation Commission, yet to be appointed by Weppler. Although the commission doesn’t exist yet and no buildings or districts have been identified, some building owners are already miffed.
Tom Rhyan owns the Liberty Theater building at 708 N. Milwaukee Ave. He opposed the ordinance when it was passed and still has concerns today.
“It’s a taking,” Rhyan said. “From a private property owner’s standpoint, it’s somebody controlling your destiny.”
Rhyan said that when the ordinance was being discussed, he was urged to write a letter expressing his concerns but never received a response.
Director of Community Development John Spoden said the early committee which worked on the ordinance included property owners.
“Both sides voiced their views,” he said.
It isn’t certain at this point how historic buildings like Brainerd will designated, but Spoden said it would include a lengthy analysis.
Trustee Jim Moran, a local history buff and proponent of preservation, is pleased that Libertyville now has the ordinance.
“Just because something is old doesn’t mean it has to be saved, but we need a mechanism in place,” he said.
Moran cited the example of the Casa Bonita building at 633 N. Milwaukee Ave. as one he believes could have been avoided if there was a historic building ordinance in place earlier.
“They tore down a building that was over 100 years old and now it doesn’t quite fit into the downtown,” he said.
Striking a balance between preservationists’ goals and those of the community may be challenging, but Hume put it in stark terms by saying that once you lose an important piece of history, it’s gone forever.
“Perhaps people don’t realize it’s needed until it’s gone,” she said. “Our past is really our future. It’s our fabric of life, it’s who we are.”