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While the real estate boom of the early 21st century did not end well for most new developments in the village, at the beginning of the previous century, real estate investors and home builders fared quite well. S.T. Gunderson and Sons, in particular, had much success in marketing their planned Oak Park subdivisions, using pitches still in use by local real estate professionals today. S.T. and his sons, Seward and George, touted Oak Park's proximity to good schools and the elevated train line.
Today, the subdivisions of homes that the Gundersons sold for $5,000 to $12,000 are designated as National Historic Districts. In July of 2011, Seward's own home at 701 South Elmwood was sold to Stefanie Glover and Alex Harris, who set about returning it to the stature it had when Seward built the dwelling for his own family in 1906.
Glover says that when she and her husband saw the house the first thing that drew them in was the expanse of the attic, a former ballroom that could be used as a play space for their twins. Originally, they had plans for a modest remodel of the home.
"We knew we wanted air conditioning and that we wanted the porch to open up," she says. "We were naïve and thought that we'd do it the right way and it wouldn't take too much time."
With an old, inefficient boiler, installing air-conditioning would call for a new HVAC system. The couple had Oak Park's House of Heat remove the boiler system and install gas forced air. Glover says the workers were careful to preserve the character of the older home, running the necessary ductwork underneath original built-in benches in the attic ballroom. The chimney for the boiler was removed, making space for more heating and cooling ductwork, as well as electrical wiring updates.
Glover and Harris also wanted to create a better-functioning bathroom on the second floor, so they hired local architect Joseph Trojanowski to aid them in several stages of the home remodel. Creating a better bathroom turned into a creating a master suite with a new bathroom that combines modern plumbing with old-school elements, such as stained glass created by Altamira to mimic the home's original glass.
With the interior of the house finished, Trojanowski stayed on to assist in returning the closed-in front porch to its former, open-air glory. A bit of luck aided Glover and Harris in the porch project. Looking for guidance in choosing colors for the house once they removed its vinyl siding, Glover purchased a book called Century of Color: Exterior Decoration for American Buildings 1820-1920.
"Our house just happened to be in the book, and our painting contractor, Peter Thomas, had the same book," she says. "It was one of the fortuitous moments in the process."
The detailed picture in the book as well as photos dating to 1906 that Trojanowski obtained from the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest allowed the homeowners to plan their porch with specific detail. The couple was so happy with the paint job provided by Peter Thomas of Thomas Restoration Painting that they hired his crew to help rebuild the porch.
"Pete lived in this neighborhood growing up, and really knew what to do on the house," says Glover. "He fixed the clapboard siding after we removed the vinyl that covered it. His carpenter, Francisco, restored the trim work. We realized that it was not in Francisco to do B work, and so we wanted him to rebuild the porch."
Trojanowski says multiple factors helped him recreate the porch.
"Luckily, the porch structure wasn't completely obliterated. When we started taking apart the old, enclosed porch, we found some old woodwork and paint that showed where the old columns were," he says. "We could trace the profile of what had been there. This was sort of an archeological process. With really good historical photos, and the traces and remnants of the original porch, we could recreate a close facsimile without the original drawings for the porch."
A former attorney, Glover used her research skills to find period-appropriate parts for the porch. "No stock balusters had the 'belly' or bowling pin shape that the original porch had. I found an online supplier of wood balusters in California and emailed him a photo of the original porch, and he was able to custom turn balusters he made into the right shape."
Glover referred to source books from the turn of the century — reprints of the same source books available to the Gundersons themselves — to make sure the new columns were period appropriate.
Throughout the entire process, Glover and Harris were aided by the fact that they were trying to duplicate the original porch, a fact that made it easier to get approval from the village.
Current code calls for porch railings to be 36 inches high, but Glover and Harris wanted to replicate the original rail height of 31 inches to remain true to the original look of the home.
Trojanowski notes that village code makes exception for historic restorations for homes in historic districts, and they were able to keep the railings at the lower height. According to Glover, the height made all the difference in making the porch look and feel historically accurate, and the couple made sure to make the porch as structurally sound as possible.
"We went a little overboard safety-wise," insists Glover. "There are steel plates under the rails, inside the hollowed columns are 6x6 beams, and the floor is supported with 2x12 beams set into the limestone foundation. The original porch was hanging by a thread, comparatively. This thing is built like a tank."
Trojanowski says that opening the porch was beneficial for more than just the purpose of architectural restoration.
"I feel really good that we have an accurate representation of what was there in 1906. Porches were a really big part of the community then and remain so today, connecting homeowners with the community."
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