OLD TOWN — One family’s push to add a garage to their historic home — a garage they say they need for their daughter who uses a wheelchair — is being opposed by a group that aims to preserve Old Town’s historic charm.
Homeowners Bill Deakin and Lisa Diehlmann own a house in the 1800 block of North Lincoln Avenue in the Old Town Triangle, a historic area where some homes pre-date the Great Chicago Fire. Their move to renovate the property has sparked a zoning dispute in the neighborhood, pitting neighbor against neighbor.
To make room for their growing family — the couple now has four kids after having twins — they bought the building at 1848 N. Lincoln Ave. in fall 2015, a building that “had fallen into a state of disrepair,” Lisa Diehlmann said. The home had previously been on the market since 2010, they said.
“The neighbors on the block called it the ‘rat house,’” Diehlmann, who has lived in the 43rd Ward for more than a decade, told Block Club.
Built in 1891, the building features mosaic windows, stained-glass windows and woodwork by renowned craftsman and stained-glass designer Edgar Miller, according to a real estate listing. The building is also in the Old Town Triangle Landmark District.
After buying the property, the family embarked on an aggressive renovation project to convert the four-flat building into a single-family home. They said they knew construction within a landmark district comes with challenges — and they would have to make special considerations for their teenage daughter who uses a wheelchair — but they were ready to tackle those obstacles. The daughter, who they’ve asked not to name, suffers from a degenerative condition and has increasingly struggled with mobility, they said.
In an effort to renovate the home to be accessible for their daughter, the couple’s renovation plans include a new attached two-car garage with a wheelchair ramp, an elevator and two accessible bathrooms.
The family wants to build the attached garage so their daughter can access the garage directly from the home, Bill Deakin said, a safety measure that would protect her wheelchair from the rain and snow.
“We went through painstaking detail to make sure this house would work for her,” he said.
The street-level garage for the Lincoln Avenue home would face out to North Lincoln Park West, a street lined with homes and buildings. The garage would be set back 10 feet from the street and would reuse an existing 14-foot curb cut on the property, according to the family’s zoning attorney Nick Ftikas.
To make those changes to the house, they’d need a building permit, approval from the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals and approval from the Landmarks Commission permit review committee. To garner support for their plan, they sought the approval of historic agencies, including the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, the city’s Historic Preservation division and a curator for the Art Institute of Chicago. The two agencies and the curator approved of the plan.
They were granted a building permit from the city and prepared to begin construction in November 2017. But one key group took issue with the family’s proposed renovations.
Many of the members of the Old Town Triangle Association, a coalition of neighbors who aim to preserve “the architectural and historical integrity” of the neighborhood, vehemently oppose the project, specifically taking issue with the family’s plan to build a street-level garage that would face out to North Lincoln Park West, said Old Town Triangle member Alan Lougee.
About 11 neighbors have written letters opposing the project, according to city records.
“It looks just horrible,” Lougee said.
Lougee, who also owns a home on the 1800 block of Lincoln Avenue, cares deeply for preserving homes in historic districts and said the garage would jeopardize the block’s historic charm. With his wife, an architect, Lougee also owns a second home in the historic French Quarter in New Orleans.
“The [zoning board] is our last line of defense,” he said. “They are meant to be upholding historic district requirements.”
Steve Weiss, president of the Old Town Triangle Association, wrote a letter to Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), detailing his objections to the project.
“I understand that the people who purchased the house have a child that requires special needs,” he wrote. “What I don’t understand is why they chose to buy a house in a Landmark Zone when you have these needs. I don’t mean to be heartless or uncaring but this is not the neighborhood for that. Here you conform to the rules, not the other way around.”
The garage would ruin one of the most beautiful, and historic, lines of Victorian homes in Chicago, and the family knew they would be subject to the landmark district’s rules, he wrote.
“Now I’m feeling bad like they are shaming us because we are not willing to allow them this garage which they need for their child,” Weiss wrote. “They should have put their child’s needs first and moved to a neighborhood more conducive to her needs.”
Weiss went on to write if the zoning board approved the plans for the renovation, he would soon follow with construction plans of his own. It’s a slippery slope when you start allowing homeowners to make certain renovations within historic districts, he argued.
“Do not approve this request to have a garage built,” he wrote. “If you do, I will have my lawyers contact you immediately about building my garage and my friends across the street will do the same. Then we’re like Wells Street and no longer a historic district. It’s game over for preservation!!!”
Read the Old Town Triangle Association president’s letter:
Despite multiple requests from Block Club, Ald. Smith could not be reached for comment.
In an effort to gain their support, the family met with the Old Town Triangle Association in August. An architect on the association’s board gave them new suggested guidelines that included a carriage-style garage that the association argued would better suit the historic block, the family said. At one point, the association suggested an underground garage, too, which the family said was not feasible. The association argues it is feasible if the family is willing to spend more money.
Deakin and Diehlmann said they made revisions and brought the plans back to the association in October. But the group and the family could not reach a compromise.
The couple said the neighborhood group’s opposition is especially troubling because the neighborhood was once home to Dr. Henry Betts, a physician that championed disabled rights and helped establish many accommodations for disabled people.
Now the issue will be considered by the Zoning Board of Appeals at 2 p.m. Friday at City Hall. Both the family and the Old Town Triangle Association have hired zoning attorneys to argue their case.
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