A group of neighbors is orchestrating an effort to attach official Landmark status to a house owned by the Sigma Chi Foundation, the charitable wing of the Sigma Chi Fraternity, at 1716 Hinman. The Foundation opposes the move and is seeking to raze the property. The house sits next door to the fraternity’s headquarters.

Landmark status requires a property owner to obtain the permission of the Historic Preservation Commission before undertaking any alterations.

The Planning and Development Committee heard both side Monday night, June 12, and decided to introduce the matter without debate.  

According to materials submitted to City Council, Sigma Chi has obtained a demolition permit for the house, and all of the utilities have been turned off. They argue that renovations to the property could run as high as $3.2 million, an argument familiar to a Council wrestling with similar price tags should they choose to renovate the Harley Clarke mansion. In an ironic twist, Sigma Chi owned the Harley Clarke house and, after selling it to the City in the 1960s, then moved to Hinman.

The landmark effort is being spearheaded by Jim Kollross of the 1200 block of Michigan. With Sigma Chi opposing the move, an unusual dynamic – a property owner arguing property to be worth less, and neighbors insisting it is more valuable – unfolded at the June 12 Planning and Development Committee meeting.

Initially, Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said there may be “interest on the part of the owner of the property to hold this” in order to fully explore options. Council held the matter once already, though, and Assistant City Attorney Michelle Masoncup said Council rules prohibited another hold. The committee must vote up or down or table the matter, she indicated. Given the matter was up for introduction only, the property owner has a couple of weeks to investigate options, a point made by at least two aldermen.

According to those in favor of landmark status, the home presents a fine example of Colonial Revival architecture, but adds artistic flourishes indicative of a fine architect at work. That architect, John Augustus Nyden, they argue, is worthy of praise and recognition for his prolific work, primarily in apartment structures, in and around Evanston and Chicago. Nyden built 1716 Hinman as his private residence in the 1920s, tearing down a beautiful Queen Ann home to make way.

“The house is really a nice house, even without the connection to Nyden,” said Mr. Kollross. Evanston previously landmarked seven Nyden-designed properties, he said, and several more in Chicago. He estimated exterior renovation costs at just $335,000, causing shifting stares and expressions of disbelief from some members of Council.

A number of neighbors living close to the home stepped up to express their support for keeping and preserving the building. Some cast blame on Sigma Chi for failing to maintain the building. Others said it should have been landmarked in early sweeps of the City for important buildings, but they regretted “missing this building.”

When the building owner spoke, the contrast could not have been starker. Hal Morris, an attorney for Sigma Chi, said the building did not meet any of the three standards for landmarking. He questioned the architectural style, saying Colonial Revivalism requires symmetry, noticeably missing in this house with its front porch off to the side and unevenly spaced dormers.

Architect Nyden, according to both Mr. Morris and Sigma Chi’s paid expert Scott Hezner, was competent and prolific but hardly significant. Mr. Hezner held up the AIA Guide to Chicago Architecture. “There’s no John Nyden in here,” he said.

 Mr. Morris also said the third element, structural integrity, was missing in the case of 1716 Hinman. The costs to preserve a building already in disrepair were simply too high. The City also left the even side of the 1700 block out of the Lakefront Historic District while placing the odd side in it, then confirmed that decision after a second wave of landmarking. 

“This is not where George Washington slept. This is not George Washington’s home,” summarized Mr. Morris. It is fundamentally unfair for a third party, not the City, to saddle a private property owner with the burdens and costs that go along with landmark status, he said.

“Just about nothing that was said there is accurate,” said Mr. Kollross, pointing as an example to a reference in the AIA Guide to the Victory Monument designed by Nyden that serves as the starting point for the Bud Billiken parade. (There are no building designed by Nyden in the guide.)

The Committee opted not to discuss the merits of the application Monday night, preferring instead to introduce the measure and pass it on to Council while reserving the option to discuss it in Committee in two weeks. No one tipped their hand as to which side they supported – the property owner or the preservationists.

A robust debate can be expected on June 26.