August 15, 2021
In late July, while strolling around the Priory property at Dominican University in River Forest, a Chicago suburb, I grew wistful as I reflected on the 1,000-plus hours that I have spent there.
That was over 30 years ago, when I was part of a team that served as real estate adviser for the Dominican Friars of the Province of St. Albert the Great in Chicago. Though the Priory parcel was not sold to Dominican University until 2002, over a decade earlier my job frequently took me to these beautiful grounds.
We guided the Province by developing and selling the perimeter land areas with 23 single-family lots and eight acres to the River Forest Park District, which it developed into a beautiful park. We also re-developed the nearby soccer, baseball and football fields for Fenwick High School, and oversaw the entitlement process. Today, the 23 single-family homes are longtime neighbors of the property and enjoy the mature surroundings.
My work on those 35 acres was a labor of love: my uncle Friar John had previously lived at the Priory. In addition, during visits nearby to see my future wife, a Trinity High School graduate, I had grown intrigued by the 1920s Gothic structure with a huge 330 feet of setback off Harlem Avenue and a quarter mile of frontage. Investigating the sprawling property’s status led to my firm’s engagement with the Dominican Friars.
The experience spanned about three years and led me toward my current specialization serving religious congregations across the U.S. and Canada. Guiding them on similar intricate real estate requirements through hundreds of such transactions, I have observed recurring themes that are likely to unfold at the two buildings on the Priory property.
Now that it is the focus of so much interest from parties such as Fenwick High School and Oak Park and River Forest High School, I want to share from my experiences not only in this unique real estate niche, but at this unique property.
Whoever acquires the Priory should do everything possible to preserve its historical heritage and integrity. It is worrisome and greatly concerns me that OPRF High School has offered an additional $1 million if the two buildings are demolished before a transaction is consummated. Much more reassuring is Fenwick President Fr. Richard Peddicord’s assurance that Fenwick would preserve those structures. River Forest Village President Cathy Adduci has rightly noted the Priory’s historical significance and that green space is a key element to preserve.
The purchaser should thoroughly explore an adaptive re-use of the Priory building to preserve the structure. Many of the floors don’t line up, making an interior adaptive re-use more difficult. But those challenges can be overcome.
Having worked on the adaptive re-use and preservation of the 1929 Marshall Fields building in Evanston, among others, I know this is feasible. For that mixed-use development in Evanston, going through the historic preservation process, an extensive renovation of the interior came even as we preserved the exterior façade while increasing the value with new uses on all floors.
The next property owner should consider building an addition to this historic gem. It’s been done before with an abundance of land and existing setbacks—and it can happen again. In fact, depending on the nature of the adaptive re-use, expanding the footprint enough will generate the necessary revenue to offset the extensive costs to preserve the iconic structure.
More than anyone else, of course, neighbors have a major stake in whatever future unfolds at the Priory site. Though I no longer have any business interest in the property, my desire now, as it was a generation ago, is that the property be stewarded with care and responsibility. Only after all the above options have been genuinely explored should any serious thought be given to demolition.
On August 17, 2021, this essay was also posted online at the Wednesday Journal of Oak Park and River Forest.