Stepping off the “L” at the Brown Line Francisco stop, visitors to Ravenswood Manor are transported to what residents refer to as “Mayberry” or “Pleasantville.”
Occupying 60 acres of land roughly bounded on the west by the Chicago River and Lawrence, Montrose and Sacramento avenues, the Manor, established in 1909, was designed to feel simultaneously suburban yet connected to downtown, a sense very much maintained in 2018
Picture graceful, tree-lined streets; tidy 100-year-old single-family homes beautifully crafted from brick and stucco; blooming gardens; and a centrally located park where the community gathers for summer concerts, Easter egg hunts and a Fourth of July parade.
“I think everybody who lives here has their Manor discovery story,” said Athene Carras, president of the Ravenswood Manor Improvement Association (RMIA), who first ventured to the Manor back in 1987 for the area’s annual garden walk.
”I got off the train and it was, ‘I think I’m in love,’” said Carras, who finally realized her dream of living in the Manor when she and her husband bought their home in 2008.
The question now facing residents is whether the Manor’s nostalgic 20th Century charm should be preserved in modern 21st Century Chicago.
Community leaders have proposed recognition as a Chicago Landmark District as the neighborhood’s best shot at staving off a potential flurry of teardowns and renovations-beyond-recognition that threaten the area’s unique character.
Despite the Manor’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places, for much of its existence, the area flew under the radar as a “hidden gem.” Now, with housing prices skyrocketing across the river in North Center and Lincoln Square, the Manor is becoming an increasingly attractive option for buyers.
The alarm sounded for RMIA board members in 2016, when Carras was alerted to a photo posted to a neighborhood group Facebook page. The image was of a roof under construction on a home at 4432 N. Mozart Street, placed next to a picture of a building permit for “interior renovation.”
“[The permit] was for an ‘as-of-right rehabilitation of an existing building,’ which means no [exterior] changes,” says Carras, who happens to be an architect. “There were loads of changes.”
A swift call to 33rd Ward Alderman Deb Mell prompted a visit to the site by the city’s zoning committee, and the renovation screeched to a halt while neighbors fought with the property’s developer to keep the project within zoning guidelines.
“It was a completely new building under the guise of rehabilitation,” says Jim Peters, RMIA vice president and head of the organization’s zoning committee.
A “‘quote’ rehabilitation” is a common tactic used by builders to “trigger fewer alarms,” Peters noted. “They left up the frame. What it is, is sticks.”
As a result of the back-and-forth between neighbors and the developer, the now completed Mozart Street house complies with height requirements and other zoning specifications, but it bears little to no resemblance to any other home on the street, which is one of RMIA’s concerns.
“You have a consistent streetscape with compatible character and then you get something jarring,” said Peters.
The Mozart Street house replaced a home that sold to the developer for $450,000, according to Peters, and the “rehabbed” version was recently listed for sale at just a shade below $1 million, an eye-popping price for an area that was founded as a solidly middle-class enclave.
Most disconcerting to RMIA is that what happened on Mozart Street isn’t an isolated incident. A decade ago, when the Manor was approved for the National Register, 91 percent of its buildings contributed to the district’s historic character. Today, due to demolition or alterations, only 83 percent do, according to RMIA.
Among the buildings lost: Three of the 10 model homes constructed in 1909 by William Harmon, Ravenswood Manor’s original developer; he built them to sell people on the subdivision. The Harmon homes were notably featured on a walking tour in 2014 as part of RMIA’s 100th anniversary celebrations.
“When you lose your oldest, most unique houses, that’s your wake-up call,” said Peters.
“The reality is, all those teardowns comply with zoning,” he said. “Are our hands tied to control really bad things? I think we’d be derelict not to at least look at the tools we can use.”
Unlike the National Register listing, which doesn’t prohibit demolitions, a Chicago Landmark District designation would put certain protections in place, including review of building permits. In late 2017, the RMIA board asked architectural historian Terry Tatum to investigate whether the Manor would meet the city’s landmark criteria.
Tatum shared his findings at a community meeting in early April, having determined that the Manor could indeed make a solid case for landmarking. Aspects that work in the Manor’s favor include its historic role in the development of Chicago along transit lines, the district’s distinctive and recognizable sense of place, and the craftsmanship and high quality building materials exemplified in its homes.
According to Tatum’s report, “The most serious integrity issues in the Ravenswood Manor District are the increasing number of demolitions and large-scale rooftop additions to buildings.”
While these changes, he noted, have yet to seriously undermine the district’s historic integrity, the sense among neighbors is that there’s a narrow window in which to act.
“We want to be ahead of the wave,” said Carras. “This is self-determination for our neighborhood.”
The next step in the landmark process, which can take nine to 12 months, is for RMIA to gauge neighbors’ support before presenting Tatum’s report to the Landmark Commission. To that end, RMIA is organizing block club meetings among residents throughout May and June in order to educate people and field feedback.
Response so far has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Carras and Peters. The most common questions raised, they said, have been about the impact on property values and whether landmarking means that the district will essentially be frozen in time.
Most studies show that historic district designations stabilize property values, both by discouraging speculative development and by ensuring a consistency of scale, Peters said. However, the impact on property values can also be influenced by what restrictions are set for preservation.
As for turning Ravenswood Manor into some sort of Colonial Williamsburg or creating a “style police,” that’s not what landmarking does, Tatum explained.
“What a [landmark] district does is say, ‘What’s generally here is what will be here,’” Tatum said.
Homeowners can make whatever interior alterations they choose; exterior changes and demolition of buildings determined to contribute to the district, specifically those built before 1933, would be reviewed by the landmark commission, he said.
“Every district tends to have buildings that are ‘stars’ and buildings that are supporting cast. There are buildings in the Manor everybody knows,” said Tatum.
Guidelines could be developed for additions, particularly bungalow “pop-tops,” Tatum added, noting that the landmark commission is generally most concerned with preserving the view from the street.
The key is striking a balance between the desire to preserve the Manor’s character, scale and style with the need for buildings to be functional.
“We know change it going to happen, it’s constant,” said Peters. “It’s a question of how do you manage the change.”
Residents who have questions regarding the landmark designation can reach out to the RMIA board at email@example.com.