What a difference a year makes

Former farmhouse fixer-upper now a contemporary classic

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

On TV, a typical home makeover lasts only a few weeks from start to finish, and is neatly encapsulated into a half-hour television show in which the homeowners engage in a bit of demolition, disappear and return to find their home transformed beyond recognition by a crew of photogenic contractors.

In real life, the renovation process can be a bit more daunting. 

Budgets and time frames are frequently blown out of the water, and here in Oak Park, there are permits to request and wait for, not to mention plenty of surprises hiding behind 100-year old walls. 

Just last year, the Wednesday Journal featured an Oak Park fixer-upper that was long on charm but in need of a complete makeover. After receiving multiple bids, all from professional rehabbers, 1125 Wisconsin Ave. sold on Nov. 20, 2017 for $375,000 to The Heartland Construction Group. After roughly seven months of intense rehabilitation, the house hit the market a little bit larger and little bit modernized, but with plenty of historic charm intact.

Built in 1908, the original home's owners were said to be owners of a nearby race track, and their barn at the rear of the property was built to house carriages, horses and a stable boy or two. 

Over time, their acres of gardens were subdivided into lots for neighboring houses, but much of the home's original details remained in place.

The front foyer retained its original fireplace, built-in bookshelves, beamed ceiling and stained glass. More stained glass graced the dining room, and the Victorian-style staircase featured working light fixtures on the newel posts. 

Last year, the Downs family, who had lived in the house for over 50 years, decided it was time to sell. While they had happily raised their four children in the home with one bathroom and a kitchen last updated in the 1970s, it was time for some loving maintenance, and the home was sold "as-is," leaking plumbing and all.

Heartland had the winning bid for the home, and real estate agent Zak Knebel of @properties, who is listing the remodeled house for $934,900, says they were the right group for the job.

Knebel points out that Heartland took pains to keep and restore the beautiful details of the home. 

"They kept a ton of character," Knebel said. "From the stained glass in the dining room to the original woodwork in the entry." 

From a tiny built-in in the kitchen to built-in linen closets on the second floor, original storage solutions also remain.

Recognizing that an ungainly addition on the rear of the home was not sturdy, and that the small footprints of the four bedrooms and the kitchen would not be appealing to today's buyers, Heartland rethought the back of the house and created a three-story addition that Knebel says matches seamlessly with the front of the home. 

Now at four-bedrooms and four-bathrooms, the home has gained space where it matters most.

The addition added 12 feet to the house and on the first floor, created space for a new kitchen that opens to a family room. In both spaces, the remodelers matched the red oak trim to the original trim in the front of the house. The kitchen now boasts custom cabinetry, high-end appliances and quartzite counters. Double doors at the rear of the house flood the room with light and provide access to the backyard.

Upstairs, the addition allowed for the creation of a spacious master suite. Original stained glass that was removed from the first floor becomes the focal point of the bedroom wall, and the suite includes two walk-in closets and a spacious bathroom. Three other bedrooms on this floor share a completely renovated hall bath.

Heartland widened the staircase to the third floor, matching the woodwork on the original staircase in the process. The finished third floor space is bonus space, perfect for a playroom or office. In the basement, a full bath and an office were added.

While the original owners' expansive gardens are long gone, the house still sits on an oversized, double-wide lot, and Knebel says the block has the deepest lots of any in South Oak Park. During the remodel, Heartland removed a crumbling driveway to provide more lawn space, and reworked the original barn to make it more useful for cars instead of horses.

Workers had to remove the original horse stalls to allow two cars to fit inside, and they added a garage door facing the alley to allow better access, but much remains the same. 

Knebel says it's the first time in his 13 years in real estate that he's seen an old barn still in existence.

"They wanted to keep this great original wood because it's stronger than what's out there now," he said.

The original hay storage and bead board walls still exist, as do the stairs to the former living quarters upstairs. Knebel notes that the garage was updated with 60-amp electric service, allowing for charging of an electric car or for someone to get creative with the second-floor space.

At the end of the day, Knebel thinks the house has that great combination of history and updates that homeowners want in Oak Park and says the sensitive remodel managed to combine old and new in an appealing package. 

"They kept the character but updated to the standards that people want today," Knebel said.

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