Robbins Park infiltrated by new homes

National Register Historic District not immune to ongoing teardown trend in Hinsdale

Series: Robbins Remade | Story 1

Drive down some streets in Robbins Park and only a closer look reveals homes have been torn down and rebuilt. On other blocks, new homes outnumber original ones. Some new construction blends in with the historic neighborhood. Other houses, due to size or design, clearly look out of place.

This is true of many residential neighborhoods in Hinsdale, but Robbins Park has been a National Register Historic District since 2008. At that time, 65 percent of its 475 homes were deemed significant or contributing to the neighborhood's historic character, according to the village's application.

Today many of those homes are gone.

The trend of tearing down older homes to build new construction certainly is not new in Hinsdale - nor is it at its peak. Last year the village processed 26 permits for new homes the village as a whole, according to Robb McGinnis, community development director.

"My first year I think it was like 120," he said. "The environment has changed."

Village planner Bethany Salmon agreed.

"The number of demolition cases going to the historic preservation commission has dipped in the last couple of years," Salmon said.

That's good news to preservationists, but many lament the 30 or so homes in Robbins Park that already have been lost. Among those are homes designed by notable architects William Gibson Barfield (324 S. Elm St.), Philip Duke West (430 E. Seventh St.) and R. Harold Zook (444 E. Fourth St.) After quite a controversy, the Zook home was torn down and the 1.2-acre lot was sold for $2.5 million in December 2020. A 10,500-square-foot home currently is under construction at the site.

Some might think National Register designation would prohibit the demolition of homes, but that's not the case.

"Being on the National Register is really important. It's really prestigious," Salmon acknowledged. "The National Register doesn't provide any historic protections anywhere."

In an attempt to save historic homes, the Hinsdale Village Board in 2020 considered implementing a six-month moratorium on the demolition of historic homes in the village. The move followed an outcry from preservationists after three homeowners submitted plans to demolish historic homes in Robbins Park. The Hinsdale Plan Commission listened to hours of public comment during three virtual hearings in June 2020 (during COVID) and voted 4-2 not to recommend the moratorium to the Hinsdale Village Board. Trustees ultimately voted 5-1 against it.

While homeowners who want to demolish a home that is landmarked or in a historic district must appear before the Hinsdale Historic Preservation Commission, any opinions the group issues are nonbinding. So even if the certificate of appropriateness is denied, a homeowner can still tear down a home and build a new one.

Sarah Barclay, a preservation commission member, lives in a 100-year-old home on the 400 block of East Third Street between two houses that have been torn down and rebuilt.

"I have to say I do adore my neighbors on either side. I have to start with that," she said. "They are lovely, lovely people."

While she doesn't believe every home should be saved, she and her husband bought theirs with the intent to do so.

"It was really important to add our family's history to the timeline of the house and the neighborhood," Barclay said. "More important than a sports court in the basement."

Preserving an older home requires additional time and effort and often creative architectural solutions to meet the needs of a modern family in a century-old home.

"I think the problem with Hinsdale is that the knee-jerk reaction is to tear something down," she said. "If we could change the mentality of Hinsdale and how people view - especially the Robbins Park District - that would go a long way."

Salmon pointed to Oak Park as one Chicago suburb that has a strong preservation mindset. The village is home to Frank Lloyd Wright's first home and studio and the world's largest collection of buildings designed by the architect, according to the Chicago Architecture Center.

"Huge portions of Oak Park are not protected by any sort of historic district," Salmon said. "People choose to go there to have a historic home."

People voluntarily putting love and money into a home is a better way to promote preservation than having a municipality pass rules and regulations, she said.

"I haven't found a community that has solved the preservation issue," Salmon said. "If they are out there, I'd like to meet them."

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean