A HISTORIC AND OPEN SPACE LEGACY
The Salt Creek Greenway Association played a lead role in the protection and preservation of the Mayslake/Peabody Estate in 1992 when the historic structures were threatened with demolition and the land was scheduled to be developed for high density residential use. What follows is a summary of the campaign to save Mayslake.
The history of Mayslake dates back over 8,000 years when the first Native American peoples lived in the region. Since then, the Mayslake site experienced many transitions and human interactions, culminating in the acquisition of the property by coal magnate Francis Stuyvesant Peabody and the construction of the 39 room Tudor Revival mansion as Peabody's retirement home in 1919-1921. The mansion was designed by renowned Chicago architect Benjamin Henry Marshall, who was influenced by the country estate of Compton Wynyates in Warwickshire, England built in 1520. The original Mayslake property encompassed 848 acres and was named Mayslake Farm. Peabody died tragically in 1922 and the entire estate was purchased by the Franciscan Order of the Sacred Heart for $450,000, including the mansion and gatehouse valued at $l million, a few years later.
A replica of the Portiuncula Chapel, the original chapel of St. Francis of Assisi, Assisi, Italy, was built in 1924 by Peabody's widow and son "Jack" in memory of F. S. Peabody. The chapel was located on the south side of the lake exactly where he died during a fox hunt. The chapel was moved to its present location in 1973.
Following the acquisition of the property by the Franciscans, the St. Francis Retreat House was established. Retreats began in 1925 and were held through 1991. The Franciscans built the St. Joseph Seminary in 1925-1927 located west of the present day Mayslake site. The Seminary closed in 1977. The structure was demolished in 1992 and Covingtgon Court subdivision was built upon the site. The Retreat Wing, located at the west side of the Peabody mansion was built in the 1950's for retreatants. St. Paschal's Friary was built entirely by hand between 1950 and 1967 by the Franciscan Friars. Fr. Rene Ettelbrick, architect, designed the building after a castle in Wurzburg, Germany. The Friary closed in 1991.
During this period, the Mayslake grounds remained very private. Few residents of DuPage County were aware of the pastoral beauty of the landscape, the architecture and the history associated with Mayslake.
In 1988, Ann Swallow, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, state coordinator for the National Register of Historic Places, was invited to visit Mayslake. Ann advised that the Peabody Mansion, the gatehouse, barn and entrance qualified for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Unfortunately, the gatehouse and barn, located at the entrance to the estate along 31st Street and visible to motorists passing by, were demolished one week later.
One of the first tasks of the Salt Creek GreenwayAssociation, founded in 1988, was to sponsor a conference bringing together municipalities, park districts, open space organizations and historians to identify areas along Salt Creek in public ownership and to develop a plan to create a trail linking the Salt Creek Greenway Trail to the Illinois Prairie Path, the Centennial Trail, the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor and other trail systems. The Salt Creek Greenway Association identified Mayslake as a priority open space and historic site to be preserved within the greenway at the conference.
Over many decades following their acquisition of the site, the Franciscans sold off 758 acres of the original Mayslake Farm until only 90 acres remained. In July 1990, the Franciscans announced that the last 90 acres and remaining buildings at Mayslake were being offered for sale. Open space supporters and historians quickly mobilized, including the Salt Creek Greenway Association, Openlands Project, Sierra Club, the Oak Brook Historical Society and others, to work to preserve the site. Representatives of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois (now Landmarks Illinois) were contacted and invited to visit the Peabody mansion and site. Carol Wiant, Executive Director, Howard Decker, President, and Nancy Wagner Statewide Program Director, indicated the urgency to save the buildings and grounds. Howard Decker and Nancy Wagner subsequently gave testimony on the value of the site and along with Susan Benjamin, architectural historian, appeared in a video promoting the preservation and opening of Mayslake to the public as a DuPage County historic and open space resource.
During the year that followed, coalition members presented testimony before the land acquisition committee of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County urging the District to acquire and preserve the site.
The coalition applied for and received a $500 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to hold a public forum in September 1990 with preservation experts as key speakers. Presenters included Howard Decker, historic architect; Ann Swallow, state coordinator for the National Register of Historic Places, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency; Gerald Adelmann, Executive Director, Openlands Project; and Dr. Rochele Lurie, Midwest Archaeological Research Services. The standing room only meeting held at the Oak Brook Village Hall was attended by interested residents from throughout DuPage County and beyond.
A feasibility reuse study for the Peabody mansion and other on-site structures was completed in October 1990 by Howard Decker, Decker and Kemp, with grants from the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, the Salt Creek Greenway Association and the Oak Brook Historical Society. The report established that the buildings were in sound condition and could be successfully and beneficially adapted for public purposes, programs and events.
In the meantime, developer Tom Shannon obtained a contract to purchase the 90 acre Mayslake property from the Franciscan Order. He planned to demolish all the buildings on the site, including the historic Peabody mansion. He applied to the Village of Oak Brook for a greater housing density than was allowed under the village ordinance. Organizations and citizens testified in opposition to the development which would destroy the buildings, the open space, and the historic and architectural significance of the site.
Concurrently, the coalition to preserve Mayslake received approval from the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County commissioners to place the question of acquisition of Mayslake on the March 17, 1992 primary election ballot as a referendum. Unfortunately, the referendum was narrowly defeated by 84,218 no votes to 79,111 yes votes, a 52%-48% margin. The Mayslake site seemed tragically lost to development. But the coalition was determined to preserve the site and continue the campaign to save Mayslake and immediately regrouped to plan for reintroducing a Mayslake referendum in the November 1992 election. The Village of Oak Brook board postponed action on development of the site pending the outcome of the referendum.
Members visited township meetings and gave programs for Republican and Democratic precinct committeemen. The coalition sought to obtain endorsements and assistance in informing the voters by scheduling interviews with newspaper editors and creating fact sheets. In many cases, literature provided by the coalition was distributed with other campaign literature door to door in the precincts. Where this was not possible, a township mailing was sent to all homeowners paid for by an anonymous benefactor in the amount of $4,000. Coalition members also gave presentations to community groups and organizations to gain support.
The key newspapers which supported the referendum included the Chicago Tribune, Daily Herald, Doings, Suburban Life and the Press. Most editorials in local papers were positive and played a significant role in educating voters by encouraging a "yes" vote on the November Mayslake referendum.
An open house at the Peabody mansion was held the first weekend in October 1992. Hundreds of people attended. Don Dobrez produced a Mayslake video which appeared on a Naperville television channel. A benefit concert for Mayslake was organized and promoted by College of DuPage students on October 3rd.
After weeks of hard campaigning, the referendum to save Mayslake was held on November 3, 1992 and miraculously passed. The voters of DuPage County approved the Mayslake referendum for $17.5 million with a majority of 165,208 votes in favor and 160,861 against. This vote occurred during a presidential election which experienced the greatest voter turnout in DuPage County history. The Mayslake referendum was one of the very few "tax positive" measures to be approved in Illinois at a time when any proposal for a tax increase was expected to fail. The Mayslake referendum beat the odds and created a great awareness of the value of the site.
Shortly thereafter, a nomination for listing Mayslake on the National Register of Historic Places was prepared. Susan Benjamin, an architectural historian, wrote the architectural description of the Peabody mansion. The nomination was submitted to the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency on April 1, 1993. Ann Swallow recommended that the entire 90 acre site be included in the nomination. On June 18, 1993, the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council approved the nomination to the National Register. The U.S. Department of the Interior approved the Peabody mansion for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, along with the entrance gates and the entire 90 acre site. Mayslake was officially listed in the National Register of Historic Places on February 18, 1994.
The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County purchased Mayslake on July 9, 1993 for $16.5 million following several months of negotiations with developer Tom Shannon and the Franciscan Order.
On January 31, 1994, specifications and a request for qualifications were mailed to selected historic architects to prepare a Historic Structure Report for the Peabody mansion. The Office of John Vinci was selected to prepare the Historic Structure Report at a cost of $22,500.
On September 23, 1995, a dedication celebration and reception was held at the Peabody mansion to commemorate the listing of Mayslake on the National Register of Historic Places. Over 100 persons, including state legislators, county commissioners and other dignitaries attended this event.
Today, the interior of the Peabody mansion (Mayslake Hall) is in the process of being historically restored, historic gardens have been installed around the mansion and on the grounds, the site is open for weddings, receptions, Shakespearean plays, theatre productions and performances. Additional programs and events are held and estate tours are provided to the public. For more information, go to www.mayslakepeabody.com.
Thanks to the voters of DuPage County, public officials, coalition members and volunteers, who worked tirelessly to save Mayslake, for supporting the preservation of one of the most significant open space and historic sites in northeastern Illinois and beyond.
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