The Forest Park Historical Society may scrap a 10-year housing agreement with First United Church, forcing the group to search again for a new exhibition and event space for its archives and programming.
This possibility is the latest setback for the society, which has moved several times in its 40-year history. As reported by the Review at the time, the Historical Society and First United settled on a rent-to-own agreement in November 2015. But problems with flooding from a leaky roof — which were more severe than anticipated — prevented the society from renting space to subtenants to help pay rent. Two proposals to church leadership to finance repairs failed and the two sides are now at an impasse, according to Jerry Lordan, the society’s president.
“Without tenants, we have no source of income. All we have are expenses,” Lordan said, adding that his organization is responsible for utilities and insurance. “We can’t continue this relationship without income.”
The 2015 deal called for the Historical Society to give $10,000 as a down payment and $6,000 a year in rent through 2025, culminating with the transfer of the title deed for the church’s buildings, at 1000 Elgin Ave. At the time of the deal, First United’s congregation was shrinking and it no longer used all of its available space. The agreement gave the church a source of income and provided the nomadic Historical Society space for programming and exhibits.
Some of the society’s archives have been moved to storage lockers in town and also to the society’s storage apartment near Forest Park Village Hall. Even without subtenants, the society still draws funding from membership fees and private donations.
In June 2016, the Historical Society asked the church to take a home equity loan against the parsonage to finance roof repairs.
“They didn’t want to take the risk,” Lordan said, referring to the congregation. “They just want to ride out the situation they are in.”
In early 2017, Lordan said, the society found private donors willing to buy-out the church’s stake in the title deed. Then, the plan was to take out an equity loan for the parsonage, which would have covered the repairs to the roof. The buyout offer also included assurances the congregation could stay and worship rent-free for two years. That proposal was also rebuffed, Lordan said.
He would not say who the private donor was or where he or she is from.
As of now, most communication takes place between attorneys for the two sides. The Historical Society has asked the church to propose a solution and offered to meet and work out something agreeable to both sides.
“We offered to sit down with them. … We’ll work out a win-win situation,” Lordan said. “We can’t get a response back.”
For now, the society is pressing on with other projects. They already have two glass display cases in the basement of village hall with plans for more elsewhere. The idea, Lordan said, is to put items on display in public buildings — the library, the park district, District 91’s headquarters — that in some way relate to the organization’s history or current function. The society, for instance, has an old Roos cedar chest and wants to give it to the Park District of Forest Park to display at its new building, at Harrison Street and Circle Avenue, which sits on the old Roos furniture factory site.
Those public buildings have clear advantages for the Historical Society, including foot traffic, handicap accessibility and climate control, which helps prevent damage to old documents.
“We want people going into the library to look at the Historical Society’s display case,” Lordan said. “They didn’t leave their house that day to look at the Historical Society museum, but it’s an ancillary benefit to their visiting the library.”
That plan is moving forward regardless of the disagreement with the church.
“I see that as the future of our museum,” Lordan said. “We think that’s a better way to display our items than having them in the church.”
But, Lordan added, the group still would like to rent space to put on events and programming if a solution cannot be reached with First United.
The society originally had its space in the Forest Park Public Library, but after renovations, the amount of required space for library services increased, and the society was forced to relocate. They ended up headquartered in the basement of then-president Rich Vitton’s home. Later, a local real estate developer offered the society access to a Madison Street storefront but eventually found a tenant and the society had to leave.
In 2012, the society moved to St. Peter’s Church, 500 Hannah Ave. But, 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. The society had to move again because of issues with Historical Society visitors coming into the same space as Mount Moriah’s daycare.
Downplaying the society’s seemingly constant movement, Lordan said his group has recently added new board members with useful skills, including wealth management and anthropology. And its programming continues to be strong, noting events with local unions, cemeteries, businesses and community groups.
“The best years are still ahead of the Historical Society,” Lordan said. “We’re not going to look at the difficulties of the past. I have more optimism and confidence in our future than I’ve ever had.”
A call to First United Church was not returned by press time.