Sunday, March 1, 2015

Scoville Square, Oak Park
 by: chicago designslinger

 [Scoville Square, Oak Park (1906/1909) E.E. Roberts, architect; (1982) John Vinci, restoration architect /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

In case you hadn't heard, walking is good for you. And before other modes of transportation took us off our feet, people walked - a lot. Can you imagine anyone walking today from say Siberia to Oregon? Of course when early humans made that trek the land masses were a little more connected, but even well into the middle of the 19th century people used their feet for overland travel. Twenty-three-year-old James Scoville was one of those people, and in 1848 he came upon the site of what would be his future home while hoofing it from Chicago to Beloit, Wisconsin.

  [Scoville Square, 137 N. Oak Park Avenue, Oak Park, IL. /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

He'd come across a ridge that rose slightly above the flat plain about 10 miles due west of the city, and was so impressed by the change in landscape and the view, that he made a promise to himself to return one day. It took a few years, but return he did, and in the early 1870s built a grand Victorian mansion right at the top of the inspiring crest. He'd come back to Chicago not long after his sojourn to Beloit and parts beyond, began raking in the cash, and in 1856 used some of that money to buy-up large tracts of land around that bump in the landscape which is Mother Earth's way of letting you know that you're standing near one of North America's many continental dividing lines. His purchases were located in a tiny community known as Oak Ridge, which became Oak Park, and over the next 30 years Scoville became one of the early Chicago suburb's largest land owners and real estate developers. And by the time of his death in Pasadena, California in 1893, Scoville had amassed a large and generous income producing portfolio of land and building holdings.

  [Scoville Square, Ridgeland - Oak Park Historic District, Oak Park /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

The Scovilles had one child, a son named Charles who inherited not only his father's estate but also his penchant for making money. In 1905 Charles decided to improve a piece of property that he owned on the southwest corner of Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street, which stood directly across the street from the old family home. Scoville Block was designed by a prolific Oak Park-based architect named Eben Ezra Roberts. Although not nearly as famous as his neighbor Frank Lloyd Wright, Roberts' hand could be seen in commercial and residential projects scattered throughout the western suburb. While Wright made an identifiable mark on the streetscape with his signature style, Roberts' designs incorporated historically revived stylings.

  [Scoville Square, Oak Park, National Register of Historic Places /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Scoville's improvement would not only generate substantially more income for the wealthy real estate heir, but it also provided Roberts with the opportunity to prominently demonstrate his adaptation of the ever increasingly popular Prairie Style, or Style of the Midwest as it was known at the time. Scoville Block grew in size four years after it was completed in 1905 when a seamless addition - also designed by Roberts - was constructed to provide a meeting hall, lodge rooms, and offices for the local branch of the Masons. Then in 1917 William Y. Gilmore opened Wm. Y. Gilmore & Sons dry goods store in one of the ground level retail spaces. By 1930, the year that Charles Scoville died, Gilmore's had taken over almost the entire building and added a sleek, modern, visually unifying, black glass facade to the ground level storefronts. In 1976 Gimore's closed its doors, and after sitting empty for the next year-and-a-half the Village of Oak Park purchased the building in the hopes of saving it. In 1979 a developer bought the aging property from the Village, and after a $2.5 million renovation and restoration, the rechristened Scoville Square was opened to the public in 1982.

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