Bringing history full-circle

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By JEAN LOTUS

It's moving time for the Historical Society of Forest Park, and they may be close to finding a permanent home. The group has lost its free space in the 7415 Madison St. building owned by local property owner Art Sundry. They have until June 15 to vacate the office spaces they're using.

Historical Society President Augie Aleksy says the group has been in talks with St. Peter's Evangelical Lutheran Church at 500 Hannah to work out a deal - initially as tenants and possibly later buying the building.

It would seem a perfect fit.

The limestone church built by Forest Park's early German immigrants was built in 1899. The organ and faade were listed in 2009 on the National Historic Register, joining the Haymarket Martyrs Monument in Forest Home Cemetery. The organ was built in Erie, Penn., and donated by Andrew Carnegie in 1907.

But the congregation today is down to 37 members from more than 400 in its heyday. Services are held once a month when both organist Debbie Jeroncic and Pastor Audrey Catalano drive in from out of town. The church has been on the real estate market for18 months, priced at $350,000. Buyers have looked it over, but no one has committed.

Enter the Historical Society, which has eyed the building for ages. "It's a great building, already handicap-accessible, and with a little painting and tile, we could move right in. It would be sweet," said Treasurer Sally Cody back in January.

The society was offered a floor of the village-owned apartment building at 501 Desplaines Ave. at the last village council meeting on May 14. But Public Property Commissioner Chris Harris pointed out that the air conditioning and heating problems in the unit were not suitable for storage of fragile artifacts. The village had also toyed with the idea of rehabbing the village-owned, burnt-out two-flat at 512 Desplaines Ave. and renting it to the Historical Society.

But Aleksy says the society must own its own building to be eligible for grant funding. He says the society could finance the buy in various ways: through an owner-financed mortgage, a capital campaign, or a sizeable donation. The society would rent back space to the congregation, so the church members would be off the hook for roughly $50,000 annually in utility bills.

"Our Realtor told us we had three parties interested," said Judy Jilek, who manages the church. "But nobody had the money to help us." The congregation took out a loan - payable by 2014 - to pay Pastor Catalano six months of back salary.

When she heard that the Historical Society had to move, she offered some space on the church's first floor. "As long as they need space and we've got it," she said, "why not?"

Jilek says several members of the congregation love the idea of the society buying the building. "It would be a perfect spot if we could work something out," she said. The society will make a presentation to the congregation June 3.

If they bought the building, paying for it would be a challenge. The society might earn money by renting out the church for events, such as lectures and concerts, said Aleksy. Currently they have about $20,000. A letter in the village's vehicle sticker renewal mailings this spring generated almost $4,000.

Whatever happens, the society says they're "planning big."

"We recall a quote from urban planner Daniel Burnham who said, 'Make no small plans. They have no magic to stir men's souls,'" Aleksy wrote in February. "Good advice from a great mind."

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