In a move that historic preservationists fear could be repeated in any number of Chicago-area suburbs, a Winnetka homeowner on Friday demolished one of the few pre-Civil War homes still standing in the north suburb.
The action came about seven months after the man had bought the property for $12 million, reportedly one of the highest prices paid for an area house in recent years.
The owner is George Garrick, presumed to be the 48-year-old Internet venture capitalist of the same name. He razed an 11-room, Colonial-style house at 595 N. Sheridan Rd. in order to build another home on the other end of a 3 1/2-acre lakefront lot, a Winnetka preservation official said.
On Friday afternoon, all that was left of the handsome, white, two-story home was a huge pile of rubble.
"The audacity of someone spending $12 million on a house and then to tear the thing down-- it's just amazing," said David Bahlman, executive director of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois. "It was a real beauty."
The house had no local, state or federal landmark status, so preservationists and village officials were virtually powerless to stop the demolition. The house had been significantly remodeled in the 1920s, with the white-clapboard Colonial constructed around the smaller, 1854 Italianate-style structure.
Local preservationists say a piece of local history was lost.
"When you look at the sheer age of that wing of the house--almost 150 years -it's a huge loss," said Nan Greenough, a Winnetka resident who had labored for months to save the structure.
But even more, preservationists are concerned that other homes of historical merit and architectural beauty could succumb to the wrecking ball because of weak or non-existing landmark preservation laws in many Chicago-area suburbs.
Winnetka has a Landmarks Preservation Commission that serves as an advisory board to village officials. But unlike in Chicago and many communities, the commission is not authorized to designate a property as a landmark--thereby prohibiting demolition or significant alteration to the property--without the owner's consent.
Garrick could not be reached for comment.
According to Greenough, Winnetka officials offered zoning variances that would accommodate both properties on the parcel, but Garrick declined the offer. She said he also declined one person's offer to help move the house to another site.
For most of the last century, the Brach family of candy fame had owned the house. Edwin Brach, who operated the Chicago-based confections firm with his brother Frank, bought the house in 1924. Edwin Brach died in 1965, and his widow, Hazel, moved to Arizona in the 1970s, leaving the house to stand idle, preservationists said.
It was uncertain whether Garrick had ever taken up residence in the house since buying it last July from the Brachs.
The Brachs had bought the home from Gilbert and Helen Hubbard, who bought it in 1871 after migrating from Chicago in the wake of the Great Chicago Fire, Greenough said. Gilbert Hubbard developed vast parcels of heavily wooded land near the lakeshore in Winnetka that he dubbed Hubbard Woods, a name that stands today.
Greenough and Bahlman said they hoped the high-profile demolition will bring to light the weak or non-existent landmark protection laws in Winnetka and many other suburbs. But Greenough lamented that she sees little political will in her village to strengthen such laws.
"There is the philosophy here that property rights should be respected, but there is also a contingent that believes Winnetka is not the place for teardowns and rebuilds," Greenough said. "But I am not optimistic the law will change."
Indeed, neighbors along Sheridan Road said they were not upset that the house is gone.
"Whoever bought it can do whatever they want with it," next-door neighbor Carry Buck said. "This is America."
Bahlman said the owner of another "even more magnificent" Winnetka home, designed by acclaimed architect Howard Van Doren Shaw, wants to demolish his structure along Mt. Pleasant Road.
"Time is running out for these wonderful places," he said. "I don't know what to do when we start having $12 million teardowns."