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Darien Historical Society seeks city support for museum

darien historical society
The Darien Historical Society hosting the annual tree lighting for the City of Darien at the Old Lace School Museum in 2009. Mayor Kathleen Weaver acknowledges Sam Kelley, Darien's first mayor, as Historical Society president John Poteraske applauds. | Sun-Times Media file photo

Darien Historical Society officials made their case for financial assistance to the Darien City Council Monday, but that request and the group’s future remain unresolved.

In remarks delivered to aldermen and Mayor Kathleen Weaver, several members of the society’s Board of Directors discussed the history behind Old Lace School Museum, 7422 S. Cass Ave., as well as the role that structure and the 700-plus items stored there play in interpreting the city’s past. The artifacts include a brass bell used to summon students to the one-room school, rare photos of the area’s earliest settlers, and a restored 1830s-era wedding dress, among other items.

Built in 1925, the school building was used by Darien Elementary District 61 until 1968. It served as Darien’s first City Hall after the city was incorporated in 1969, avoided demolition in the mid-1970s when it was restored by the Darien Bicentennial Commission, and opened as a museum in 1980. A lack of funding and other factors means the facility is opened to the public for just two hours (1 to 3 p.m.) and only on the first Sunday of each month.

“The Old Lace School and Museum is the city’s most important artifact,” said Dean Rodkin, historical society vice president. “It allows visitors to touch history and relive the past, not just read about it.”

Warren Anderson, society treasurer, said his group would prefer to maintain its independent status as a tax-exempt nonprofit organization, but seeks to work with city officials to gain the funding required for an estimated $40,000 in capital improvements — starting with a new roof. The existing roof dates to 1985.

Rather than having the Darien Historical Society absorbed by city government, Anderson proposed the city issue an annual stipend of several thousand dollars to the group. That “steady stream of income” would allow the society to tackle its needs one project at a time, he said. Anderson also noted the museum’s interior walls contain lead paint.

“It is encapsulated at present and poses no threat, but any restoration work would mean that lead would have to be removed,” said Anderson, indicating preliminary cost estimates for removal are in the area of $20,000.

In the City Council’s view, the issues are many. For one, the former school building and land remain owned by District 61, and the city is unwilling to spend tax dollars on property owned by a third party.

“If we invest in the facility, we would like to own that property,” Weaver told the society officials.

The District 61 School Board is expected to take up the ownership issue at its May 27 meeting, according to the society representatives.

Also, the stipend idea proposed by Anderson found few friends among city officials, who doubted its effectiveness over the long term. City Treasurer Michael Coren, a society member, said the group could exert a much more robust effort to raise money.

“You don’t respond to people who make donations,” Coren said. “You don’t take other measures to raise money the way that other organizations do.”

Sixth Ward Alderman Sylvia McIvor said the society should work on broadening its appeal.

“You need to get more people interested in the historical society and the events there. You need to get younger families interested,” she said.

The City Council agreed to tour the Old Lace School and Museum while it awaits word from District 61 officials about ownership.

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