It’s too late to yearn for B&B project

To the Editor:

The articles and letters about the pros and cons of B&Bs in Kenwood are interesting, but isn’t the point moot? I assume that the Tawani Foundation has withdrawn its offers for the two Frank Lloyd Wright houses. For good reasons. There are plenty of interesting historic properties all over Chicago with which it can work – including similar Frank Lloyd Wrights. It does not need these two houses. And if I were them, I would not want to work in Kenwood after the meeting at the Episcopal Church on Nov. 18. I thought that meeting was an embarrassment. We residents of Kenwood came across as totally provincial – lacking any grace or savvy. Not distinguishing between Tawani’s highly unusual proposal and other pedestrian development proposals.

The meeting was also disappointing because there was no real discussion of the issues involved. The plug got pulled in response to what I would characterize as a group of school-yard bullies. I came to the meeting dubious about the project, but like a lot of people, was intimidated by the immediate negative outburst. Led, I might say, by one of my dearest friends, so I should have been able to speak up.
I did not, and do not, fear that the two B&Bs proposed by the Foundation would cause the collapse of our neighborhood or undermine its character. Indeed, as proposed, they would have most likely added to its quality:

  • If Tawani’s other projects are indicative of its restoration work, it would have created two architectural gems to add to our historic renown — including restoration of their interiors. One of which, the Blossom House, is of national and international importance.
  • The visitors that the B&Bs would have attracted to the neighborhood (those willing to pay $200 or $250 a night to sleep in a Frank Lloyd Wright house) would not have detracted from the sterling character of we full-time residents. And indeed, they most likely would have acted as ambassadors to the rest of the world: testifying what a wonderful neighborhood Kenwood is and, more generally, how pleasant it is to spend time on Chicago’s South Side.
  • And many of us would have loved to have interesting accommodations nearby in which to house visiting family or friends when there are too many for our own houses.

My problem with the proposed uses was that I did not understand Tawani’s business plan. Even if I accepted that it never expected to recapture the massive up-front investment in restoration, I did not think that the B&Bs would even break even when they were operating. My friends, who have tried to operate B&Bs with their own and their children’s labor, had a really hard time making a profit. I feared that these enterprises would fail. I wanted to know what plan B would be. Those fears were allayed by the architectural restrictions Tawani was willing to place on the buildings for any future owners. If I were still head of the Chicago Landmarks Commission, I would have touted them as an extraordinary model for owners of important buildings anywhere. I am sure none of us current Kenwood residents are willing to preserve our homes through future owners to the extent that these people were.

I still would have loved to have heard more about the economics of the proposed project. It seems to me that once the buildings were restored that there might be other more economically viable alternatives. For example, could they be used as high prestige residences for important visiting scholars or dignitaries that are in Chicago for extended periods of time – maybe with the university or maybe with the future presidential library or maybe other institutions in the city? There probably would have been other interesting ideas that evening that never got expressed. I am confident of the insights and ideas my neighbors can generate and would have loved to heard them.

But most important, no one, including myself, stopped to thank Jennifer Pritzker and the Tawani Foundation for considering this extraordinary investment in our neighborhood. Perhaps Ald. Burns can extend some gesture to the Foundation that says: despite the impressions from the meeting in the church, Kenwood residents can be neighborly and welcoming to new ideas and concepts.

Chuck Thurow