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Freeport Residents Band Together To 'Save The Tabernacle'

Freeport Park District

A growing group of Freeport-area residents is working to save a historic building that’s slated for demolition.

The Oakdale Tabernacle is a century-old steel and wood community gathering place owned by the Freeport Park District. It’s also known as the Oakdale Auditorium and is located within the Oakdale Nature Preserve. Park District commissioners voted 3-2 Tuesday to tear it down.

It’s on the 2018 Landmarks Illinois list of most endangered state sites. Jody Coss is with “Save the Tabernacle.” She says it’s an unusual building that would attract tourists while serving the people of Freeport as an events space.

“When you walk in there,” she said of the octagonal structure, “and you have the eight doors open to nature, and you have this beautiful steel structure with light coming into the windows from the top – it is just an absolutely stunning place.”

Ed Klein is also fighting to preserve the Oakdale Tabernacle. He says it’s the oldest building in the park district. But its importance goes beyond that.

“It's the only kind of building like that, as far as we know, anywhere close to here,” Klein said. “And it's an enclosed tabernacle that is actually in usable shape. I think they just got tired of cleaning it.”

They’ve set up a Facebook group called “Friends of the Freeport Park District” to try to halt the destruction in any way they can. They packed the park district meeting Tuesday to show their support for preserving the tabernacle, share memories, and offer help for the restoration. They revealed a state grant for the park district may be in danger because they didn’t include the controversy over the tabernacle in an application. They’re also pursuing a potential violation of state law: Bats may be hibernating in the building and can’t be disturbed by demolition. That may buy supporters some time.

The group says it can raise the money and has professional contractors willing to donate their skills to restore the tabernacle. Some Park District commissioners cited the cost of restoration as a reason to give up on the building. The Park District has commissioned studies over the past few years about rehabbing the tabernacle -- the price tags vary widely, based on the extent of the restoration.

Frank Butterfield, director of Landmarks Illinois’ Springfield Field Office, is helping advise “Save the Tabernacle.” In a letter to the Freeport Park District commissioners, he laid out the reasons his organization wants the demolition placed on hold. That included not pursuing public-private partnerships and not pursuing state grants to fund preservation of the historic building. Butterfield also emphasized in the letter that the building is structurally sound.

There is no reason to rush the public discussion, exploration of alternatives and compliance with state grant provisions because all structural assessments of the tabernacle have concluded that it is in no imminent danger of structural failure or collapse. Spending limited park district funds to place a historic asset in a landfill should be the last resort after all options have been explored.

The park board accepted the lowest bid by a local contractor, $22,000, to raze the tabernacle. A demolition date has not been announced.

Susan is an award-winning reporter/writer at her favorite radio station. She's also WNIJ's Perspectives editor, Under Rocks contributor, and local host of All Things Considered.