Close to home

The Alexanders have been rebuilding their Gunderson home since a fire gutted it in 2003. At last, the end is in sight.

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By LAURA STUART

A lot has happened since October 2003. We've invaded Iraq and lived through presidential primaries and George Bush's re-election; Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California, Martha Stewart was tried, convicted, sentenced and sent to prison; Google went public; hurricanes battered Florida; scientists discovered two new elements and a planetoid.

And the Alexander family, who lost their Oak Park house in an Oct. 23, 2003, fire, spent every bit of that time rebuilding. Are they done yet? "Close," says Deanne Alexander. But no cigar.

The fire in the Alexanders' Gunderson at 808 S. Elmwood Ave. tore through the third floor and part of the second floor. What wasn't burned was destroyed by water and smoke. The result, though technically not a tear down, was a total loss. A few possessionsâ€"china, crystal, silverware, pots and pans, a few paintings, a few chairsâ€"were saved, but everything else was gone.

We've been following the Alexanders' ordeal as they navigated their way through the amazingly complex rebuilding process ("In the line of fire," WEDNESDAY JOURNAL, March 24, 2004, and "In a fix," WEDNESDAY JOURNAL, July 21, 2004.)

A brief recap. Almost immediately after the fire, State Farm, the Alexanders' insurer, found them a rental house just a few blocks from their home, and brought in rental furniture and other necessities. The kids were back in school in a week. The Longfellow community, friends, and neighbors they didn't even know pitched in by donating money, clothing, and other household items.

"The kindness was unbelievable. It really helped us get through the most difficult time," Deanne said last March.

One of the earliest decisions she and husband Nick madeâ€"and one of the best, as it turns outâ€"was to go with State Farm's "Premier Service Program" and choose a contractor from the insurer's list of participating contractors. They hired Emergency Restoration Service, and haven't regretted it. "They are truly craftsmen, hardworking. And they did what they needed to do. We weren't nickeled and dimed to death," says Deanne.

It was a huge job. The house was leveled and framed in, and a new roof went up. The interior was dehumidified so mold removal could begin. All the original molding, including the staircase they'd hoped to save, was too damaged to repair. But some of the original studs remained, and those had to be scraped, sprayed with a mold-killing solution, dried and sealed. All new systemsâ€"heating, electrical, plumbingâ€"were installed. Then walls (drywall instead of plaster), oak floors and woodwork went in. There are three new bathrooms and a new kitchen (sort ofâ€"more on that later).

Outside, every clapboard and every window was pulled and replaced.

Deanne, Nick and their four children, Aris, 19, Louis, 11, Mary, 9, and Jane, 7, have been back home since Oct. 1, just short of a year since the fire. But even though it's substantially completed, the house remains a work in progress.

Room for change

If you could change the layout of your house, would you? That's the question the Alexanders faced when they set out to rebuild their Gunderson.

Redesigning the exterior was never an option. It's a historic home, in a historic district, and Deanne says they were determined to restore it to its original appearance. The village was very helpful in getting it done right.

At first, State Farm said the wood clapboards and windows on one side of the house could be repaired rather than replaced like those on the rest of the house. The Alexanders argued that they wouldn't match and wouldn't look right, and Doug Kaarre, Village of Oak Park historic preservation planner, agreed.

"He was a huge help," recalls Deanne. "He had before-and-after pictures, wrote letters and took the time and effort to document it and convince [the insurer] that [the clapboards] needed to be replaced." And to State Farm's credit, she says, once they got the documentation they needed, they were "very good" about covering the cost of the work.

But the interior design was a different story. "In the beginning, we thought we'd do a traditional Gunderson," Deanne explains. "But as the walls came down, all of a sudden there was all this open space and we liked it. It evolved. We could see how it could be made so much more livable and accessible, and we decided to go that way."

So unlike the original configurationâ€"entryway, staircase, wall, dining room on one side; double living room, wall and kitchen on the other sideâ€"the first floor is now a modern, open space. The dining room has been replaced by a family room. The wall between it and the staircase is gone, as is most of the wall that separated it from the kitchen. The kitchen is also visible from the living room, with the two spaces divided by a counter that functions as a breakfast bar, complete with stools. At the back wall of the family room, where the built-in buffet used to be, there's a direct-flow fireplace and a flat screen TV above, surrounded by built-in cabinetry.

"The light in here is phenomenal now that it's open," says Deanne, standing in the living room. "The kitchen is great as a working spaceâ€"I can see everything. The only thing I don't like is that you can see a mess in the kitchen as soon as you walk in the house. On days when I'm running late, I think maybe it wasn't such a great idea. But we're happy we did it this way."

There's no guilt about changing the historic home so radically. "There was no original left here. And there are plenty of Gundersons. You can go next door if you want to see an original," she says.

Not everything is different. The distinctive Gunderson molding was copied and replaced, which required having a special blade made. Curran Glass Studio restored the stained glass at the front door and on the staircase landing, and created new stained glass windows "with the Gunderson look," says Deanne, for the living room and family room.

Just before the fire, the family had remodeled the first-floor powder room, located at the center of the house in what used to be a coat closet. The new version has a fused glass, vessel-style sink and hanging lamp handmade by Sandra Schwarzbeck, an artist friend of Deanne's.

There are no major changes on the second floor. All the rooms feel a bit bigger, since the radiators were removed when forced-air gas heat was installed. "It's drier and noisier" than the old hot water heat, says Alexander, but the change allowed them to install central air conditioning. "That was the decider."

The second-floor bathroom has been transformed to a "romantic, Tuscan" space, complete with a huge, spa tub ("Worth every penny," notes Deanne), marble tile,
a rain showerhead, and a bubble sky light.

The previously unfinished third floor is now a finished bedroom and bathroom for Aris. "A bribe," his mother says, to keep him living at home while he goes to
college.

Getting there is none of the fun

Of course, there were delays. Work was supposed to be finished by April 2004, then August. The Alexanders' landlady thought the August deadline was firm, and rented the house they'd been living in to someone else. For two months, they bunked in with Deanne's mother in Mt. Prospect, and she drove her three youngest kids back and forth to Longfellow every day.

Finally, "I rebelled. It was exhausting," she recalls. In October, they prevailed on the village to issue a temporary permit of occupancy so they could move into the house, which was just finished enough to be safe. In the beginning, they slept on blow-up mattresses on the floor and survived on take-out food.

The number of decisions the family has had to make over the past 14 months is staggering. Finances are tight, and they didn't have the option of hiring designers or decorators. The contractor helped, but in the end every choiceâ€"every color, fabric or cabinet designâ€"came down to Nick, Deanne and Aris.

"I was so overwhelmed it got to the point where I was saying, 'Don't ask me what I want for lunch,'" Deanne admits.

And then there was the kitchen. The contractor hired a carpenter to build the kitchen and family room cabinets and countertops. It was a disaster from the start: the cabinets didn't fit the layout and didn't match each other, the finish was uneven, dull and not right for a kitchen, the insides were unfinished. To make things worse, the contractor went ahead and paid him.

"Both the contractor and I knew it wasn't going to work," Deanne realizes now, but at the time, "I kept making compromises and [the carpenter] kept making promises."

Eventually, the contractor agreed to swallow the cost, and new cabinetsâ€"semi-custom this time, so they'll cost the Alexanders more than they expected to payâ€"were ordered. They should be installed in a week or two, but it means ripping up the kitchen and essentially starting over.

There are lots of details left, too. Last week, 200 boxes came out of storage and are piled up in the basement waiting to be unpacked. There's almost no furniture in the family room yet, and the entry wallpaper is on backorder. They still have to reach a final settlement with the insurance company.

Will it ever be over? The end, says Deanne, feels "closer and closer. It's still going to take months for us to get settled. We're grasping for 'back to normal,' but we're not there yet."

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