Beneath the peeling paint and dust inside a 116-year-old fire house, Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest Director Frank Lipo sees room for a new dynamic for an organization that has traditionally been a keeper of facts.
"History has to have more of a two-way conversation," Lipo said during a recent interview at the Cicero Fire House, located at the corner of Lake Street and Lombard Avenue in Oak Park.
The historical society, now headquartered at Pleasant Home, is aiming to renovate the 1898 fire house and move in by the end of the year. The extent of the planned $1 million project depends on fundraising, Lipo said. The organization has so far raised about $500,000.
The historical society is charged with preserving research materials such as property records and newspaper archives while also displaying local artifacts. At its Pleasant Home headquarters, exhibits on the creation of Tarzan, the invention of Twinkies and the founding of McDonald's — all accomplishments of Oak Park and River Forest residents — compete for space with administrative offices and file cabinets.
The fire house, a 7,500-square-foot space with two stories, will provide room to display the community's history in a simpler, more focused way, Lipo said. Walls of offices inside the building, once occupied by Department of Public Works staffers, will be destroyed to open up the first and second stories, while a basement will provide storage space, he said.
Displays will focus on themes in the recent history of Oak Park and River Forest. The struggle for diversity that culminated in the fair housing marches of the 1960s will be a likely feature, along with stories about the ingenuity of local entrepreneurs and a look at the village's path from a dry community to a standard-bearer of progressivism. The collection will emphasize some of the area's lesser-known celebrities, Lipo said.
"(Frank Lloyd) Wright, (Ernest) Hemingway – we've talked about them so many times," he said. "But there are so many other stories."
The displays will be accompanied by some empty spaces, intended to garner suggestions from visitors, Lipo said.
"We want to make sure that people get the message: help us decide what we put in this space," he said.
The society is still working on how exactly to gather ideas and engage the community, Lipo said, but he has some ideas. The museum could bring in projectors for a day to play family videos, or could hold contests in which people produce and submit short films on local events or activities. Another potential contest would solicit ideas for display panels, he said.
The renovation plan is the revival of an effort that was stalled in 2008 by the economic downturn, Lipo said. The society has received about $150,000 in state grants and about $350,000 in donations for the project, he said.
Oak Park architect Louis Garapolo has worked free-of-charge on designing the renovations, and other residents have pledged engineering and landscaping services.
Based on pledges and conversations with potential donors, he expects to raise another $500,000 by the end of the year. If that doesn't happen, the project could be scaled back to meet the budget, he said. The grants need to be used by the end of the year, he said.
The Village of Oak Park, which owns the fire house, has leased the building to the historical society for 30 years for $1 per year, Oak Park Business Services Manager Loretta Daly said. The lease provides for a 20-year extension if the historical society puts an addition on the building, Daly said.
The renovation would add momentum to recent growth in the neighborhood, she said. The historical society, a 45-year-old organization, would join the Park District of Oak Park's Gymnastics and Recreation Center and the Oak Park School of Rock as recent additions.
"It's bringing additional life to that area, that corridor, that I think is really beneficial," Daly said.
The fire house, a designated national landmark, has always been a public building and exempt from property taxes, she added.