When Vernon Skiff was looking for an architect to design his East Avenue home in Oak Park in 1909, the retired merchant from Iowa proved to be a discerning customer. He interviewed a young Frank Lloyd Wright but was not impressed with Wright's use of stone foundations and wooden beams.
After seeing the headquarters of his son and son-in-law's Jewel Tea Company, predecessor to the Jewel supermarket chain, Skiff decided to interview Nimmons and Fellows, the architects of that Chicago-style building. Known primarily for their commercial buildings, Nimmons and Fellows' use of brick, limestone, a concrete foundation and steel beams convinced Skiff that they could build him a solid home.
Thanks in part to that solid construction, the home has weathered the last 104 years with aplomb, gracing Oak Park's estate section with a quiet elegance that transcends architectural trends.
George Nimmons and William Fellows partnered from 1899 to 1911. In the early years of their careers, both were employed by Daniel Burnham, who worked on the classically designed Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Both architects had ties with the Chicago School and Prairie-style architects, including Louis Sullivan, George Elmslie and Dwight Perkins, an alumnus of Wright's studio. Their style combined elements of the Chicago and Prairie schools with more classical elements that weren't favored by more progressive architects such as Sullivan and Wright.
In 1905, Nimmons and Fellows designed the Sears, Roebuck & Company complex on Chicago's West Side. Nimmons in particular was known for a design philosophy connecting the well-being of a building's inhabitants with its beauty, believing that well-designed buildings could enhance workers' health and well-being.
One of a Kind
Current owners Cheryl and Bill Niro recently listed the house for $2.2 million with Michael O'Neill of Baird and Warner. The Niros purchased the home for their family in the 1980s, drawn in by the home's character and solid construction. Bill, whose father was a bricklayer, was sold when he first saw brick walls built three brick-lengths thick. Cheryl was intrigued by the home's many original features and family-friendly layout and became a historic preservation champion as she worked to restore the house.
In a town so focused on Frank Lloyd Wright's legacy, Cheryl marvels that her National Landmark home is often overshadowed by homes in Wright's Prairie style.
"In Oak Park," she said, "everyone knows about Wright and Tallmadge & Watson, but we have a landmarked home that has been sort of ignored. The style has just been referred to as something else going on at the same time that Wright was working and has never been given recognition for what its role was in the era."
According to O'Neill, that unique status makes the home without peer in Oak Park. "People tend to lump the Chicago School in with the Prairie style, but it's very distinct. Nimmons and Fellows were merging the classic style with Arts and Crafts style and some Prairie elements. The limestone banding that goes all the way around the house and the transoms everywhere are unmatched. The ceiling heights are amazing. The home is 65 feet tall and built as a true three-story home with almost equally high ceilings on each floor. This home is completely different from anything else that was built at the time."
Cheryl Niro notes that it took a lot of time to uncover all of the home's history.
"I think the interesting thing about our house," she said, "is that it wasn't until it was on the Wright Plus walk two times and had two researchers that we found out so much about it. We've also uncovered much of the home's physical history and we've tried to preserve it over the years."
When the Niros purchased the home, the original arched transom window over the front door was covered in plywood and wallpaper. The Niros had the art glass restored, returning an important design element to the home. Throughout the first floor and on the exterior porch, the arch motif is repeated and coupled with rectilinear elements, a hallmark of the Chicago School style, according to Cheryl.
In a family room that was probably originally a sun porch, the Niros removed sisal carpeting, glued to the original tile floor, allowing the intricate pattern of the flooring to once again take center stage. Cheryl points out that while preserving these and other original details — such as the library's intricate plasterwork design — they also made sure that any updates were in keeping with the home's history.
"My husband and I agonized at times," she recalled, "but when we found the right person, we didn't get bids from other people. We had to do what was right. We never made a choice that wasn't about doing what was right for the home and its architectural significance."
When it came time to re-roof the house, the Niros made sure to use slate tile to match the original tiles on the home and rear guesthouse. They revamped all of the home's mechanicals — including adding air conditioning — and they also made the home more family-friendly. A rear addition of a true English conservatory brightened up the once dark kitchen, and provided a light-filled room for family gathering. Once the conservatory was finished, the Niros remodeled the kitchen.
"After a year of working with the English Company, Town and County Conservatories, to create our conservatory," she said, "we went through another year of construction on the kitchen to take it back to something more complementary to the home." Craftsmen with Oak Construction designed handmade cabinetry and woodwork that makes the room fit in with the rest of the home.
While the large bedrooms on the second floor make the house ideal for a family, it is the third floor that truly tops it off. According to the Niros, Skiff planned to host a ball in the ballroom to watch Halley's Comet in 1910. Not knowing which part of the night sky would be best to see the comet, Skiff specified that windows be built on all four sides of the room. Because of those windows, O'Neill calls the third floor a "transformational space. The light up here is unbelievable."
The Niros brought in local restoration firm, Von Dreele-Freerksen, to reclaim the third floor space for the family.
"We made a choice when our kids were young," said Cheryl, "that we wanted to be the house where the kids hung out, so we finished this space to give them an area to be creative."
With their children grown, the Niros are ready to move on to another project. Cheryl notes that it will be hard to leave the home they've loved for so long.
"This house is meant to be the home of a big, happy family. It's well-cared for, well-loved, and it shows."