When preservation gets prickly | On Culture | Chicago Reader

When preservation gets prickly 

Neighbors want to save Ken Nordine’s Edgewater mansion; if he could still talk to us, he might not agree.

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click to enlarge Ken Nordine's Edgewater mansion, 1902

Ken Nordine's Edgewater mansion, 1902

Pond and Pond Collection; Ryerson and Burnham Archives; The Art Institute of Chicago

Architectural preservation? Admirable! Especially in Chicago now, with the built environment giving Al Capone some competition as the city’s global identity. It’s a feel-good thing. And it’s environmentally correct.

But it can also get dicey.

Like when the aims of preservationists run headlong into the opposing aims of property owners. One side might be looking to save a significant structure (and also, neighborhood ambience); the other trying to cash in promptly and at top dollar on a building they’ve invested in, perhaps lived in, and counted on as an asset.

The Chicago City Council has the power to protect buildings by giving them landmark status. In practice, this protection isn’t given without the local alderman’s support. So, if preservationists come up against an unwilling owner, an alderman can find himself in a prickly situation.

A case in point is playing out in Edgewater.

The property is an imposing old mansion at 6106 N. Kenmore, a six-bedroom, Arts and Crafts-style brick residence with a spacious side yard, built in 1902. It was designed by the Chicago firm of Pond and Pond—brothers Irving and Allen—important architects whose other local work included Jane Addams’s Hull House complex (though not the house itself). According to architectural historian Terry Tatum, the Pond brothers designed the house on Kenmore for Herbert Perkins, an International Harvester executive, and his wife, Margaret, whose father, banker Franklin Head, a director of the 1893 World’s Fair, had his own Pond and Pond mansion in the Gold Coast.

In 1951, the Perkins mansion became the home of radio star Ken Nordine—aka, the sonorous “voice of God.” Nordine had a successful commercial voice-over career, including some memorable Blackhawks spots and this trippy Levi’s ad, that paid for the mansion. But he’s best known as the master of Word Jazz—a witty, poetic, and allusive art form he invented in the 1950s, in which he talked in concert with music and sound effects. Carefully constructed to sound like it wasn’t, Word Jazz played like a psychedelic stream of consciousness, or like verbal scat—but with meaning, however bent. Working from an attic studio in the mansion (where he hosted the likes of David Bowie and Laurie Anderson), Nordine recorded, broadcast (mostly on WBEZ and NPR), and syndicated this idiosyncratic genre for decades; you can find his CDs through wordjazz.com, and catch some of his video versions (like Blinko or Fibonacci Numbers) on YouTube and Vimeo.

Nordine and his wife, actress and vocal coach Beryl Vaughn, raised their three sons in the mansion, and lived there until they died: Beryl in 2016; Ken on February16 of this year, at the age of 98. Now their heirs are selling the house, which stands on a third of an acre, is zoned RM-5, and, according to Landmarks Illinois, could be the site of much denser development. It’s been given an orange rating by the city, which means that it’s a potential landmark, and that a demolition permit application for it would trigger a delay of up to 90 days to allow the city to consider whether it should be saved.

Which is where 48th Ward alderman Harry Osterman comes in.

At least one developer would like to save the Nordine house. Andrew Ahitow, of City Pads, has a plan that would repurpose the mansion while expanding it into an apartment complex. Ahitow told me his company put in a “competitive” but unsuccessful purchase offer contingent on getting landmark status (which could allow for possible government financial incentives). When the offer was rejected, Ahitow said, he was told that the seller didn’t want to take the risk of going down the path of landmarking. The Nordine family attorney, Randall Romei, had no comment.

Earlier this month, the Edgewater Historical Society sent a letter to Alderman Osterman, asking him to “do the right thing” by preserving the “ultra-significant Nordine mansion.”

But in a phone conversation last week, Society president Robert Remer told me that Osterman had introduced an ordinance to downzone the property last spring—only to withdraw it. Why? “We heard the family didn’t like it,” Remer said. He also recalled that, years ago, when previous Alderman Mary Ann Smith was considering a proposed historic district that would have included the mansion, Nordine was one of those who opposed it.

Osterman has said he’d hate to lose the building, but “hasn’t said yes or no to preservation,” Remer told me: “He said, ‘I don’t think I should tell people what to do with their property.’ But there aren’t many of these historic mansions left in this part of Edgewater, and it’s an alderman’s job to vote for or against preservation.”

The mansion is apparently now off the market; word is that it’s under contract to a buyer who’s likely to demolish. “We’re asking people to contact Alderman Osterman and tell him to support the landmarking process,” Remer said. “Without his help, it’s going down. It’s completely in his hands.”

Osterman’s office said he has no comment. But the alderman’s dilemma is clear: preservationists have said that saving the house would, among other reasons to preserve it, honor Nordine. But it might not honor Nordine’s intentions. 

This week Remer was holding out hope that a preservation solution could still be found.  v

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