Try to protect Robbins Park before it's too late

The Robbins Park neighborhood in Hinsdale undoubtedly is a special place.

The northern half was platted in 1866 by Hinsdale founder William Robbins and contains some of the oldest housing in the village, according to the village’s website. The southern half, the William Robbins Park Addition, was platted in 1870, with curved streets and landscaping designed by Horace Cleveland.

One hundred and thirty-nine homes were considered “significant” when the neighborhood was declared a National Register Historic District in 2008. The area contains a mix of architecture, including Italianate, Greek Revival, Queen Anne, Craftsman, Prairie School, Colonial Revival, Classic Revival, Tudor Revival, American Foursquare and more.

The district also is home to the William Whitney house at 142 E. First St., one of Hinsdale’s four buildings listed on the National Register,

“The Robbins survey area is one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in Hinsdale,” according to a summary of Robbins Survey Area Architectural Resources prepared in 2002. “Encompassing a residential area of larger, picturesque lots ... (t)he survey area contains some of the oldest homes in the village, representing a wide range of architectural styles and some vernacular and popular types spanning over 130 years. The architectural legacy is rich, with grant architecturally significant buildings spread throughout the area.”

That all sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

And then we get to this graph.

“Yet the popularity of the community, with its choice location, tree-lined streets and high quality housing has created strong pressure to demolish existing properties and build new, much larger, more elaborate homes. This ‘tear-down’ phenomenon has touched every part of Hinsdale and the survey area is no exception. In the last 10 years, 20 percent of the existing housing stock in the community was demolished and replaced with new construction.”

That was in 2002. We wonder what the percentage is today?

And while the village’s new preservation incentives seem to be gaining traction with homeowners, the fact of the matter remains that nothing — not even National Register recognition — protects any home in Hinsdale from demolition.

This point was painfully obvious in discussions about plans to tear down a 90-year-old home at 425 E. Eighth St. The post-modern home that will be built in its place has drawn the ire of historic preservation commissioners and neighbors.

We can see their point, and understand histor preservation Commissioner Frank Gonzales’ characterization of a “screw the rest of the neighborhood” attitude of the property owners at last week’s meeting.

In the owners’ defense, they have every right to tear down any home in town and build anything in its place, so long as zoning restrictions are met. The village requires owners of properties in historic districts and of landmarked homes to submit an application and request a certificate of appropriateness, but there are no consequences if that commission does not grant the request. And let’s face it, people are going to do what they want to do, if nothing stands in their way.

The village’s hands are tied somewhat, too, because its powers are more limited than if it were a home-rule community.

But we hope village leaders will find a way to do more than just incentivize preservation. We hope they can find a way to better protect the character of the Robbins Park Historic District. Otherwise, that designation is going to be a joke.