First Annual Preservation Award to Marian and Leon Despres in February, 2005
Despres Preservation Award
It is a great honor for the Hyde Park Historical Society to give its first annual Preservation Award to Marian and Leon Despres. For more than fifty years they have nurtured the movement to save our city's architectural heritage. In a real sense they are the parents of preservation in Chicago.
In 1957 Len, newly elected alderman from the 5th Ward, adopted Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House sa it sat unwanted and threatened by its legal guardian. This successful effort to save "America's first modern house" gave birth to the City Landmarks Commission which then chose 39 buildings as "honorary" landmarks. That body grew up to become the present Commission on Chicago Landmarks which was empowered by Desres's 1968 city ordinance to select and protect 12 important buildings as our first official Chicago Landmarks. Three of those original designations were in Hyde Park. In 1960 Mr. Despres and friends formed the Chicago Heritage Committee and walked the picket lines to defend Louis Sullivan's Garrick Theater, threatened to be demolished for a parking garage. This vigil, and a similar one to save Sullivan's Chicago Stock Exchange in 1972, could not prevent the loss of these two important members of our architectural community. But even those failed efforts strengthened the growing preservation movement by leading to the birth of organizations like the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois and by raising a new public consciousness of the value and worldwide fame of Chicago's "outdoor museum" of historic buildings.
In 1965 Marian Despres and a small group of friends bought and began to nurse back to health the long-neglected Glesner House. Under Marian's caret he house as become a remarkable museum, the only H.H. Richardson house in the country open to the public, and the anchor of the Prairie Avenue Historic District. From her efforts at the Glessner House grew the Chicago Architecture Foundation with its world famous docent progrm. She served on the CAF Board from 1970 to 1975 and as its President in 1976 and 1977. Marian also served on the Landmarks Commission form 1983 until 2003, where she inspired the Chicago Historic Resources Survey, the comprehensive inventory of Chicago's historical and architecturally significant resources--the most complete listing ever compiled by a major city in this country. Both of the Despres were active in the formation of the Hyde Park Kenwood Community Conference where Marian created the "Segments of the Past" project documenting 866 buildings that were demolished during Urban Renewal.
Beyond saving buildings, passing laws and forming organizations, Marian and Len Despres have fostered a strong, vigorous preservation movement in Chicago. They've helped raise an extended family of preservationists that will survive and grow for many generations to come.