Historical Society Executive Director Diane Grah wants Forest Park residents to see its building as a resource. 

“We would love to host somebody’s wedding or memorial service,” she said. “If a community group needs a facility for something like a pancake breakfast or a spaghetti dinner; if someone is looking for a place to rent for a birthday party or shower, we have a kitchen and the space for that. We are hosting a 209 Together event in the evening on Dec. 12 at which there will be a question-and-answer session and brainstorming.”

Just a few months ago the Forest Park Historical Society and First United Church of Christ came to a creative solution to challenges each organization was experiencing, what Grah calls a “win/win partnership.”

The Historical Society was technically homeless. Even though it had been renting space from First United, the members’ institutional memory consisted of being bounced around from one temporary and inadequate space to another. With the agreement made last fall, the society finally had a home in which they were no longer just renters.

First United’s membership had dwindled to the point where the congregation could no longer raise the funds necessary to maintain the building they owned at 1000 Elgin though it was still active as a faith community.

The win for the Historical Society was that they put only $70,000 down for a building appraised at $450,000 and agreed to pay the congregation $500 a month for a period of 10 years, at which time the building would become theirs. The win for First United was that the congregation had use of the parsonage and the church building rent free while the society was paying for the building’s insurance and utilities. In addition, Grah said, if First United decides to close before the 10-year agreement is up, they will do so on their terms and not because they were forced to disband because of limited financial resources.

Grah called it a “lease to own” agreement. Although both organizations used a lawyer to make the partnership legal, the relationship was more like a partnership than one held together by a legal contract. She used words like trust, respect and communication to describe how the two groups work together, and the word “providence” to express the gratitude the society feels both for the acquisition of the building and their relationship with First United.

They’ve already demonstrated how well the partnership is functioning. 

“We recently had to fix furnace,” Grah said. “We talked together and then made things happen.”

Although the society got a good buy on the property, the organization is not well endowed financially and paying the bills remains a challenge. In addition to membership dues, it has a few other sources of income. The Creative Montessori School, a Spanish immersion program owned by District 209 trustee Claudia Medina, meets Monday through Friday after school and on Saturday mornings in the building, and Sara Dolin’s Maiden Lane Studio meets to practice Irish dance there every Monday evening.

A small revenue stream comes from the society’s programs, tours and events, such as their cemetery tours, recent lectures on World War I and black history, concerts like FoPa-Palooza held last January, a restaurant crawl in Forest Park and, believe it or not, a Prohibition tour in which participants learned how the village’s taverns “got around” the law when serving alcohol was legally not permitted.

The society’s vision for the future is to create a “heritage and history center” at which people can learn about the village’s interesting past and do genealogy research, for example, but can also help Forest Park residents understand and appreciate their identity as a community. 

Referring to the four neighboring villages, Grah said, “Forest Park is a village that took a different path. Even though we’ve evolved, we’re still coming across issues now that former residents contended with years ago.”

She added, “In a year in which we’re celebrating our 40th anniversary, it’s wonderful that Dr. Orland’s vision is becoming a reality.”