In a village that values its historic homes, bragging rights go along with title of oldest home. But just what is the oldest home in Oak Park? Many, including historians, architecture buffs, and this very paper, have assumed that title went to the Garland House at 241 Home Ave. Presumed to be built at some point in the 1850s, the home has often been called the oldest in town.
Not so fast, says Frank Lipo, executive director of the Historical Society Oak Park-River Forest. It isn't always so easy to nail down age, and he thinks there may be a few other contenders for the title.
Garland or Garling?
Before any claim to the title can be considered, Lipo cautions, it is important to examine our methods for determining the age of a home.
"Essentially," he said, "Oak Park has many homes that are documented in various ways from the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s. Up to the present, there are multiple sources for determining the age of a home — deeds, early newspaper records, city directories. They all carry some authority. But here's the rub: In the years before the 1870s, Oak Park was part of Cicero Township, and there is no body of records from that time. People might be incredulous that a local historical society doesn't have a definitive answer to the question about the oldest house, but we've only been around since 1968 and there just aren't paper records going back so far."
When it comes to homes built before the 1870s, said Lipo, stories take on important weight, but they have to be considered alongside facts that can be more firmly established.
"Local lore is a good basis for looking into a home's story," he observed, "but confirming and saying affirmatively that this is the oldest house in town takes better documentation. You need a story and a paper trail of some sort."
The Garland House on Home Avenue is believed to be one of the oldest in town, but Lipo said that home's history demonstrates the problem with relying on local lore alone. Many attribute the home to the Garland family, a maker of stoves used in local homes in the 1800s. A search of local records does not show a Garland family living in Oak Park, but there is a Garling family, whose daughter married a local store owner named Purnell, who was an official dealer of Garland stoves.
One factor that many point to in saying the house is the oldest is the fact that it was moved to its current location from Lake Street. That fact itself is not definitive by itself, Lipo noted.
"In the 1850s and 1860s, many early homes were built on the few blocks around Lake. It was also much more common to move homes in those days. There was no viaduct, no streets to crack because there were dirt roads and no power lines to worry about."
Records that do exist may point to a land purchase or refer to a street name, but in early times, the street names were different, numbering systems weren't in place yet, and lots referred to as corner lots may not have remained corner lots as the area was further developed. In many instances, it might be possible to come up with a date range but not an exact year of construction.
The lack of hard records is often coupled with what Lipo sees as a natural inclination among people to want to attribute age to grand homes or homes associated with founding families such as the Kettlestrings or the Austins. While he agrees that 241 Home Ave. is a main contender for the title of oldest remaining home in the village, he thinks there are a few others in the same age range.
Considered by many to be the second oldest home in the village, the Schoff house, at 1122 Ontario St., is believed to have been built in the 1850s or 1860s, but the exact date is hard to determine. According to a 1952 Oak Leaves story on the area's oldest homes, Herman Schoff, the youngest child of the Schoff family was still living in the home in 1952. He claimed the house was 95 years old and reported that his parents Henry and Marie were married in 1857, moved to Oak Park, built the house on Ontario and gave birth to their first child there in 1858. In a 1989 Wednesday Journal story in which the home was listed for sale, the year of construction was listed as 1864.
A modest house, 619 Forest Ave., is a contributing structure in the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District. Exact construction records don't exist, but the home was built by the Gauglier family, which legend holds to be the fifth family to settle Oak Park. Originally from Belfort, France, Maurice and Catherine Gauglier were thought to have moved to the area in the 1850s. The house was once the center of their 20-acre farm at the intersection of Belleforte and Chicago avenues, and it is believed to have been moved to its current location in 1879 or 1880.
638 N. Kenilworth
The brick home at 638 N. Kenilworth Ave. is another example of a home with an indeterminate construction date. Documents point to the lot of land being purchased as early as 1838. Resale records in 1855 show an increased property value which indicates that the property had been improved by a building during that time period. The 1952 Oak Leaves story recounts "old-timers remembering the landmark red farmhouse," but no further records pinpoint the home's exact age.
The Carter House
At the corner of East and Chicago avenues, the Carter House is another home that is certainly within the group of Oak Park's oldest. While an exact construction date is undetermined, it is believed to have been constructed sometime in the early 1870s or earlier. Lipo points out that the 1879 census of Cicero Township shows only 1,608 people living in Oak Park, so there were likely very few homes within the village at that time.