Depending on whom you asked in 1952, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Avery Coonley estate in Riverside was an aging landmark or a developer's gold mine.
But to Carolyn Howlett and her husband, both driven artists who admired Wright's flair, it looked like home. After fighting to stop an architect who bought the property to demolish the building, they bought and remodeled the carriage house part of the estate--turning a stable, garage and chicken coop into an art-filled Wright jewel that by 1956 would grace the pages of House Beautiful magazine.
But half a century later, the home's signature clay tile roof is crumbling, and Howlett--a 91-year-old widow with Alzheimer's--cannot afford to replace it. The deterioration has local preservation societies tangling with the Cook County Public Guardian's office over how best to care for the landmark while also doing right by the woman who long protected it.
"Had it not been for her, it's likely the building would've been demolished," said Charles Pipal, chairman of the Riverside Preservation Commission. "She's been a real friend to preservation. ... We kind of owe it to not only the building but to her to resolve this as best we can."
But this is one leaky roof that's tough to plug, say the preservationists, public officials and relatives involved. With estimates to fix the problem running up to a quarter-million dollars, financial difficulties, private property restrictions and Howlett's own legacy complicate the options for the roof's repair.
Public Guardian Robert Harris, whose office has held legal authority over Howlett's estate since her Alzheimer's disease began to take hold in 2003, wants to fix the roof quickly and frugally, with a $14,000 asphalt replacement.
While a Wright roof would be ideal, Harris said, he prefers a cheaper alternative because he doesn't want the staggering costs to force Howlett, who has been a widow since 2000, into a nursing home.
The Riverside Preservation Commission, the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy and the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois would much rather see an authentic replacement, which estimates have placed at $200,000 to $250,000 worth of bona fide Wright touches.
The preservationists say they respect Howlett's past advocacy and don't want to displace her--but they also don't want an inferior roof to threaten the value of the rest of the Coonley estate, which includes elegant residences and a gardener's cottage.
"There is a public benefit component where everybody would much rather drive down the street and see the right kind of roof on a Frank Lloyd Wright house," said David Bahlman, president of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois. "[But] it's hard to tell her ... that she's going to have to sell the house to someone who can afford to put the right roof on. You can't do that either."
Riverside panel gets petition
The public guardian's office filed a petition July 14 with the Riverside commission to go ahead with the asphalt roof, as the house's landmark status means municipal approval is required before any major changes can be made. The commission took the petition under advisement, and representatives from the three interested preservation groups will convene Monday to discuss options to present to Harris.
"We'll talk about creative ways to solve the problem without necessarily looking for $250,000," said John Thorpe, a board member of the Chicago-based Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. "Nobody's got a quarter-million dollars sitting around."
One scenario would involve arranging for Howlett to transfer some ownership of the property--which her nephew said is assessed at about $1 million--in exchange for financial help, Bahlman said.
The Wright Conservancy, which advocates for the preservation of Wright structures across the country, has purchased at-risk properties from private owners in the past, Thorpe said.
But for now, Howlett's house is decidedly not on the market.
"She wanted to live in her home until her death," said her nephew and closest living relative, Norm Sobol of Lemont. "If I know my aunt, she'd say, `To hell with the roof, let it leak.'"
The carriage house roof has suffered considerable damage since its House Beautiful days, with broken and missing red tiles visible from the overgrown gardens that surround the home. Inside, cracks snake across the ceiling, flanked by water spots and peeling paint.
Art, photos adorn walls
Yet the open-air, Prairie-style Wright elegance remains, with the Howletts' own works hanging from the walls and stacked in their cobwebbed, long-abandoned studio. Snapshots of Rome and watercolors of Nassau bear the signature of James Howlett, a sketch artist and longtime Tribune photographer. The bolder strokes belong to Carolyn, a weaver and painter who taught at and directed the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Now a thin, silver-haired figure whose fuzzy slippers barely touch the floor as she sits in her living room, Howlett smiles at the mention of her career, her travels and a talented man named Frank Lloyd Wright.
"We knew him personally," she says, the syllables strained but the blue eyes bright. "The house practices what it preaches."
For the Wright Conservancy, this is the first encounter with a public guardian in financial control of a Wright-designed residence, said conservancy program director Audra Dye.
The vast majority, 93 percent, of Wright residential homes are still privately owned, Dye said. When owners can't afford their expensive upkeep, it is usually easier to sell the property than to find financial help, as Wright-minded preservation societies direct their grant money to non-profit landmark owners rather than to private citizens.
"We're not in the business of repairing Joe Blow's roof in Lincoln Park because they don't have the money to do the right job on it," said Bahlman. "The problem is, if the owner of the structure can't afford it, what can we do?"
The public guardian's request to build the cheaper roof is scheduled to come before Riverside again Aug. 11. Pipal said the Preservation Commission would likely deny the request.
That could trigger the public guardian's office to file an application for economic hardship status for Howlett, which could force Riverside to allow the asphalt roof, Harris said.
"Having an art background herself, she appreciates the beauty and uniqueness of her home, but at this point it's something she herself cannot maintain in that condition," Harris said. "We can't afford to maintain her in the home as well as put on this type of roof, and it would be an absolute travesty if she had to move from her home."
Pipal hopes it doesn't come to that. "It's certainly no one's intention to remove her from her property; it's just a very weird situation," he said. "That roof lasted 100 years, and hopefully if we do this right it'll last another 100. ... Hopefully there's a way the preservation community at large can step up and finance this, because that's part of her legacy, too."
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