A Farewell to Old Main

For over 100 years Old Main stood upon a hill with a sweeping lawn spread before it, the iconic image that defined an entrance to Lake Forest. Here is where the Religious of the Sacred Heart came in 1904 to erect what Arthur Miller has described as an American Colonial Revival country place, a commanding edifice to house an academy for young women. Four years later Barat College was established and occupied the south wing of the building. In 1924 the Thabor Wing with its exquisite Chapel was added above the 1904 first floor and from that time until 2001 Old Main stood as the heart of an educational institution and a stately welcome to Lake Forest. This proud history will soon fall to the wrecking ball if things go as now planned.

The day is done and darkness

Falls from the wings of night…

—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Architecturally, Old Main’s red brick façade punctuated with white stone exhibits the symmetry, proportions and massing of the Georgian style—a central section flanked by hyphens connecting wings on either side. The fenestration is refined and the dormers finely detailed. All in all it is an elegant building. So, how did such a substantial and well-designed structure come to its current state?

The sequence of events is well known to our community. The Barat campus was taken over by DePaul University of Chicago in 2001, but by 2003 DePaul came to a decision to close the Lake Forest campus and marketed the property for development. In 2006 Barat Woods, LLC, a development company, took ownership of the property and proposed a residential development, which was approved by the City.  Rehabilitation of Old Main was included in the development plans.

Unfortunately, the plans never moved forward and in 2010 the property went into foreclosure. Deferred maintenance during the Barat College years coupled with neglect in the years following the collapse of the Barat Woods, LLC plans brought Old Main to its current shockingly derelict condition. Certainly, a lack of care and stewardship occurred in recent years, and it has been said that the building may be beyond the possibility of rehabilitation. Interestingly, a few short years ago Barat Woods, LLC planned to renovate and rehabilitate Old Main as luxury condominiums.

In August of 2011, Woodlands Academy announced that anonymous donors had plans to purchase the 23-acre Barat Campus and donate it to the Academy. The conditions the donors stipulated included the transfer of the property to their ownership by December 21, 2011 and the assurance that they would be permitted to demolish Old Main and clear and grade the property. However, Old Main is situated in a Lake Forest Local Historic District, which protects it from demolition.

The Historic Preservation Commission, hearing Woodlands Academy request for delisting Old Main from the district, denied the petition as the Standards for Delisting were not met.

To eliminate this roadblock, the City has crafted an ordinance removing the property from the local historic district. This ordinance has passed First Reading and awaits final approval. Note that Old Main, while standing, retains its status as a contributing structure to the East Lake Forest National Register District and remains on the Secretary of Interior’s Register of Historic Places. Such designation confers honor and distinction but does not preclude demolition.

And so, to Old Main we say:

Farewell a word that must be and hath been

A sound which makes us linger--- yet--- farewell.

—Lord Byron


by Pauline Mohr