By Adrienne Fawcett
News that the 23-acre Barat Campus has been donated anonymously to Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart has been met with jubilation and an equal dose of curiosity and speculation in recent days.
Graduates of Barat College are thrilled to hear the property has been rescued from foreclosure and that donors intend to give it to its next-door neighbor in the leafy southeast corner of Lake Forest. Local homeowners are relieved that the choice property will likely be used for education purposes rather than a development of condominiums and townhouses. And the administration of Woodlands is–understandably–as close to heaven as a staff of educators can get on earth after learning they’ll receive a parcel of land that’s worth millions of dollars.
“We are elated!” said Head of School Gerald J. Grossman in an email to GazeboNews on Monday afternoon.
But that’s about all he would, or could, say at this time. As to questions about what will become of the property, and how–or whether–Woodlands will fund a renovation of Old Main and another building on the site, Mr. Grossman said: “You’re way ahead of us on these questions. Once the first Board of Trustees task force meets, we will have answers to some of these questions.”
Just what is the range of possibilities for this property? Are there restrictions on what Woodlands can or cannot do with the remaining structures on the Barat campus? Is Old Main itself on the National Register of Historic Places–or was it just the now demolished Sacred Heart Chapel that was considered historic? Does the City now have a say in what will become of Old Main, the circa 1904 red brick building that is to many the face of Barat College and the front-door to east Lake Forest?
There are no solid answers—at least not right now, said Lake Forest’s director of community development, Catherine Czerniak.
“A portion of Barat Campus is within the historic district and both Woodlands Academy and Barat College were approved through Special Use Permits as educational uses on residentially zoned property. So yes, as changes are proposed and redevelopment options considered for reuse of Barat Campus by Woodlands Academy, City approvals through a public process will be necessary,” she said. “At this time we do not know exactly what approvals will be necessary or the timeframe for consideration pending further information from Woodlands. Stay tuned!”
The Barat campus has been a hotbed of controversy for at least a decade. In 2001, it was sold to Depaul University, which then sold the property a few years later for a reported $18 million to Barat Woods LLC and its proprietor Robert Shaw of Lake Forest, who planned to turn the campus into a development of high-end condominiums and town homes. The developer met strong resistance from neighbors, Barat grads, historic preservationists and others who had various reasons for wanting the buildings to be preserved and/or the property to continue being used for educational purposes. At the heart of the outcry was the Sacred Heart Chapel, circa 1924, which was placed on the list of the state’s Top 10 Endangered Places by the advocacy group Landmarks Illinois. Lake Forest’s Historic Preservation Commission voted to save the chapel, but despite that and public outcry, City Council approved the Chapel’s demolition in April of 2007 because it said the City’s historic preservation ordinance only covered building exteriors. By July of that year, Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust sued the City in an attempt to block the Chapel’s demolition. The case was later settled because, according to the National Trust Defense Fund’s website:
Given the high cost of litigation and that most of the interior elements of the chapel have been removed, the Trust agreed to settle the lawsuit and instead provide for the future protection of historically or architecturally significant interior spaces within Lake Forest.
In 2010, Harris Bank bought the property for $12 million in a foreclosure sale, according to media reports. And then, last week, Woodlands announced that “Anonymous donors have informed the Woodlands Academy Board of Trustees of their intention to donate the 23-acre parcel of property formerly known as Barat College to Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart.”
Bob Shaw said he has mixed emotions. In a letter to friends (which he shared with GazeboNews), Mr. Shaw said:
If … the sole use of the land donation is for educational purposes, this has the potential to be a wonderful future use of the property – both in terms of community preference for continued educational activity on the site and reestablishment of the Religious of the Sacred Heart ownership.
Given the deteriorating condition of Old Main, significant funds must be spent on restoration in order to make this building usable. Hopefully, generous donors will provide for rehabilitation and maintenance endowment as well as for land acquisition and grounds maintenance.
Obviously, I am most disappointed that the City of Lake Forest approved adaptive residential reuse of the site has not materialized. However, everyone should recognize that our real estate market has been seriously challenged – and that developers, architects, building contractors, bankers, realtors, homeowners and building product suppliers and related retailers have all faced difficult times.
While the approved Barat Woods development was projected to generate about $2 million annually in real estate tax revenue (primarily for the benefit of our City and public schools) plus several million dollars in one time impact fees (again to benefit the City and our schools, parks and library), economic times checkmated realization of my vision. However, it should be remembered that residential development was always the fallback for redevelopment of the site – with continuing educational use being the preferred avenue by the community.
May Woodlands Academy achieve their vision and emerging plans, bringing a rebirth to the natural beauty of this wooded, ravined site with its historic Old Main and new library buildings.
The buzz on Facebook so far is very positive about the recent turn in Barat’s journey. Here are some quotes from the “I Remember Lake Forest When …” group on Facebook:
“I too am happy to hear about this news. My mother worked in the library for at least 30 years and brought me in with her to work during my summer breaks to type the catalog cards. One summer I did work in the bookstore doing inventory which was a nice diversion. So many years spent wandering through those halls. I also went to school there from Jan. 1974 through Jan. 1975.”
“I hope the interior can remain intact. The condo plan would’ve gutted it.”
“I adore hearing about things like this. Now, what about Stonebridge, hmmmm?!”
“Thank goodness! Two of my aunts went to Barat and my grandmother started up the bookstore and volunteered there there when I was young. There was a plaque donated in her name when she died, I wonder if I can still find it?”
“As a Barat grad-I do hope this happens. The current state of the Barat buildings and grounds make me sick. Barat was (and still is) a wonderful and very supportive community when I really needed it.”
The story is ongoing and will likely provide new twists and turns. As Ms. Czerniak said, stay tuned for more.