The Forest Park Historical Society’s nomadic existence may finally be ending. According to Jerry Lordan, interim president, the society is finalizing a sale agreement with First United Church of Christ to assume ownership of the congregation’s building at 1000 Elgin Ave.
The 40-year-old Historical Society originally operated out of the Forest Park Public Library. However, restructuring expanded the amount of required space for library services, and the society was forced to relocate. They ended up headquartered in the basement of then-president Rich Vitton’s home, at which point the organization “was apparently rather dormant,” said Lordan.
A real estate developer offered the society access to space in a Madison Street storefront. But as Lordan explains, “Eventually [the developer] got a buyer for the building and we had to move out of there.”
They found sanctuary at St. Peter’s Church, 500 Hannah Ave., in 2012. Yet the society’s future remained insecure. As reported by the Review at the time, the dwindling size of the church’s congregation, coupled with financial difficulties, forced the 99-year-old St. Peter’s to sell to Mount Moriah, a Baptist church, in 2013.
St. Peter’s attempted to help stabilize the Historical Society’s future, however, by presenting them with a “major [monetary] gift” intended to address the society’s “physical space facility needs.” It also included a contract rider in the sale agreement that reserved “non-exclusive use … in a manner consistent with how these organizations used the real estate prior to closing, including the right to store personal belongings.” But problems soon developed.
Mount Moriah operated a daycare program in the basement of the building, which is where the society’s archives were stored. As Lordan explained, “The state is really adamant that if you have a child day care program going on, you cannot have [random] adults wandering in and wandering out. … That really put a crimp on our ability to access the public.”
Mayor Anthony Calderone offered the society use of a village-owned apartment at Adams Street and Desplaines Avenue, adjacent to village hall. The collection is currently housed in that building but is not open to the public.
Finally, First United became aware of the Historical Society’s plight and offered space on their property. The society accepted and as Diane Grah, executive director of the Historical Society, told the Review, “We put a museum in an old classroom … [and] we had a couple of events there.”
In the 1950s, First United Church constructed an annex to accommodate the rising number of worshipers in Forest Park in the post-war period. “So many guys were moving out of the city, taking advantage of the G.I. Bill to buy houses, coming to Forest Park. There was just a need for more social activities within the churches,” Lordan remarked.
But now, just like St. Peter’s, First United’s congregation is shrinking and they no longer utilize the entire building. After moving some of its operations to the church, the Historical Society has developed a “wonderful working relationship” with First United, Lordan said.
Soon the two organizations began exploratory talks regarding the property’s transfer.
“I think their confidence in us grew to the point where they approached us and offered to sell the building,” Lordan said. As church membership dwindles, he added, “They want to bring their business matters to a conclusion in a timely, well-planned manner.”
The annex, which Lordan said is the “key to what we want to do,” would offer the Historical Society space for offices, museum exhibit space, storage and a work area to prepare archival items for display. First United is also handicap accessible, which is a requirement for the Historical Society to apply for state financial aid. The building is in good physical condition, except for a small depressed section of the roof which will need replacing.
Despite lacking a permanent home, the Historical Society conducts a variety of annual activities around Forest Park, including restaurant crawls, sightseeing tours, and educational lectures. This year, for instance, the organization has coordinated a panel discussion, cemetery tours and a dinner event commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Eastland Disaster in which a passenger ship, carrying employees of Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works factory in Cicero, capsized in the Chicago River, killing hundreds of people.
“Over 50% of the victims of the catastrophe are buried inside Forest Park,” Lordan noted.
The society also engages in fundraising activities, including producing the “Forest Parkopoly” board game and the “Des Plaines River Anthology” book. This year they are planning a juried art exhibit. “Artists are being invited to display their work and there is a fee. We are asking the artists to donate one of their works to a silent auction.”
Aside from organizing events, the society maintains an archival collection, which has continually grown since 1975 and includes “photos, newspapers, costumes, maps, real estate listings from the 1950s to the 2000s, village annual reports from 1907-1940, and much more,” according to Grah.
Although specific details of the sale are not yet available, Grah told the Review the two parties have agreed on a sale price. The agreement is a 10-year deal and allows First United to continue to maintain the adjoining parsonage and use the sanctuary for worship services. The congregation will pay utilities and insurance but not rent. After acquiring the building, the Historical Society plans to rent the sanctuary space to other congregations as long as the groups are not “antithetical” to First United.
The Historical Society board plans to meet on June 20 to vote on the terms of the agreement. If approved, Lordan said there will be an informational meeting in July for general members to tour the property and discuss the agreement, followed by a final special meeting in August to ratify the contract.
“As president, I think it is essential for the general membership to have the opportunity to learn about the church [facility] and to discuss the agreement. … It is a bigger issue than the board alone should decide.”
“We hope to have the deal complete by the end of summer,” said Grah.
First United officials did not return phone calls by press time.