Coonley Crisis solved

Sale of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Coach House allows ownerto remain, repairs of leaky roof to go forward

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By BOB SKOLNIK

After moving into the main residence of the Coonley estate in 2000, Dean Eastman got to know Carolyn Howlett. He and his wife, Ella Mae, attended birthday parties for her. He knew that Carolyn and her husband Jim, who had restored and moved into the Coonley Coach House in 1953, were largely responsibility for saving the estate in 1951 when a developer proposed tearing down it down and building ranch houses on the property.

He also knew how much she loved living in her home, how important the Coonley estate was to her, and how much Howlett, now a 91-year-old widow suffering from Alzheimer's and other physical infirmities, wanted to stay there.

The Coonley estate was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright nearly 100 years ago. The Coach House originally served as its stable, garage and boiler room. The entire complex, now divided among five owners including Eastman and Howlett, has been designated both a National Historic Landmark and a Riverside Landmark. Under the Riverside code (as in Oak Park), a certificate of appropriateness must be issued before any exterior alteration, restoration or reconstruction can be done.

So when the Cook County Public Guardian's office, which has handled Carolyn Howlett's affairs since 2004, created an uproar with a proposal to replace the Coonley Coach house's leaking red clay tile roof with a ordinary modern replacement roof, Eastman decided to step forward. Eastman and the public guardian's office came up with a solution that has left everyone happy and keeps Howlett is the house that she has loved for so long..

"We've know Carolyn pretty well," said Eastman. "She really wanted to stay in her house until she died."

Now she will be able to just that and soon with a roof that doesn't leak.

On Sept.16, Judge Mary Ellen Coghlan, who oversees Howlett's affairs, enthusiastically approved the proposed sale of the Coonley Coach House to Eastman with an attached life estate for Howlett. The judge issued a decree for the sale of property to the office of the Cook County Public Guardian. (Howlett is a ward of the public guardian because she was ruled incapable of managing her financial affairs.)

Dean and Ella Mae Eastman closed on the property on Sept. 22. Neither Eastman nor the public guardian's office would disclose the price of the transaction.

"[Judge Coghlan] felt it was the absolute best solution," said Kathryn Balgley, the attorney from the public guardian's office who represents Howlett. "She was very happy. She has handled Carolyn Howlett's case from the beginning and knew how important it was to her to stay in her house."

Under the agreement, Eastman will purchase the Coach House and grant Howlett a life estate. A life estate is the legal term for a limited ownership interest that allows Howlett to have the legal right to remain in her home during her lifetime. Only upon her death will Eastman have full and unfettered ownership in the Coach House.

According to the terms of the sale, Eastman will become responsible for maintaining the outer portions of the home, repairing the leaking clay tile roof, and paying property taxes. Howlett will be responsible for all utilities, Balgley said.

According to the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, an organization dedicated to the preservation and maintenance of remaining Wright structures that has been involved in the effort to find a solution to the Coach House problem, Eastman has accepted a quote from Mansfield and Sons Company to conserve and repair the existing roof tiles. The company recently recreated the tile roof at the Wright-designed Robie House in Hyde Park that is under the management of the Oak Park-based Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust.

Eastman said he plans to repair the existing roof using as many of the original tiles as possible. He expects the roof to be repaired before the winter season.

"It's a win for her and a win for me," said Eastman. "I get to unite another major portion of the estate. I like Frank Lloyd Wright architecture."

Eastman has won awards for the museum quality restoration work he has done on the main residence of the Coonley estate.

"What he has done there is really the gold standard in private restoration of Wright property," said Ronald Scherubel, executive director of the Conservancy, which helped bring the parties together.

He is enthused about the eventual possibility of reuniting more of the estate that was constructed for Avery Coonley in 1908 and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1971.

Ted Smith, a member of the Riverside preservation commission who has lived in the former Play House of the Coonley estate for 25 years, was pleased with the transaction.

"Our efforts have worked out," said Smith. "It's the best of all possible worlds."

Frank Lloyd Wright was hired by Avery and Queene Ferry Coonley in 1907, with an unlimited budget, to design their home. Over the next five years, according to the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, the collection of buildings comprising the estate grew to include the main house, a coach house, a gardener's cottage, a play house and acres of landscape gardens and grounds designed by Jens Jensen.

In 1912, two houses designed by Wright-trained architect (and River Forest resident) William Drummond were added to the property.

The estate was purchased in 1951 by a developer who planned to tear down all of the structures and build a tract of ranch houses. Carolyn and Jim Howlett were instrumental in convincing him to retain all of the original buildings. In the end, he subdivided the open acres of land for construction of five ranch houses and subdivided the large main house into two residences. The Howletts purchased the Coach House in 1953.

Dean and Ella Mae Eastman purchased the public space (living and dining room pavilions) and the servants' wing of the Coonley main house in May 2000. They recently completed a four-year restoration of their house and the surrounding grounds, and were recipients of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy's 2004 Spirit Award for their efforts.

The Coonley estate is the only large, multiple building Prairie estate still privately owned, according to the Conservancy.

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