Trage home in River Forest to be demolished after court sides with village

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Gardening blogger

As Cliona Lim looks on, the venerable old home in which she grew up, 203 Franklin Ave., River Forest, will soon be demolished. The 106-year-old residence where her family resided for nearly 50 years holds myriad fond memories of her wonder years.

Last month, a Cook County Circuit court judge sided with the village of River Forest and ordered the home —owned by John Trage — on the corner of Washington and Franklin demolished.

On March 11, nearly three years after a fire broke out in the Trage home, a decision will be made about who will tear down the house and garage and reseed the lot for future purchase, said Michael Braiman, assistant village administrator of the village of River Forest.

This decision is yet another chapter in the strange saga involving former River Forest resident John Trage, the husband, father and businessman whose appliance store, Trage Bros. in Forest Park, and personal home were burglarized at least nine times, prior to the widower leaving River Forest for Hawaii, three days after a mysterious fire broke out in his home in 2010.

All of this followed the unresolved death of his wife, 44-year-old Catherine O'Connor Trage in Mexico on Feb. 22, 2008.

Braiman said he's unsure why two banks failed to press forward with foreclosure actions filed in 2009 and 2010 against the property. He said the banks have failed to maintain the property, which has forced the village to maintain the landscaping and shore up the building.

In October 2012, River Forest went to court to seek the building's demolition.

"With the banks being unresponsive, and not taking any action, the village has determined that the public safety threat is significant enough that we cannot continue to wait," Braiman said.

For now, the village will cover the demolition costs. Subsequently, individuals interested in purchasing the property will have to pay the village's lien or else lose their interest in the property should the village decide to foreclose on its lien, Braiman said.

"Who pays those costs is unknown at this time — it can be anyone with an interest in the property [and] parties with an interest in the property, including Mr. Trage and the banks," Braiman said.

A mysterious fire

According to River Forest Police Report 10-7520, on Aug. 11, 2010, at approximately 10:56 p.m., an officer was dispatched to 203 Franklin Ave. to assist the River Forest Fire Department. The fire department reported that they responded "to a house with heavy smoke in the attic."

The neighbors are sad about the loss of a venerable home, but they're fed up with the structural issues haunting the boarded up, vacant building.

"What happened is so sad, and every day, with the house in the condition it is in, it is a reminder of the sadness," said Marge Gee, the next-door neighbor whose family has lived in their home on Franklin for about 30 years. "It makes me want to cry … four great kids who don't have a mother, for whatever reason."

Just houses away, another longtime neighbor shares Gee's sentiment. But with the state of the property on the corner, he is ready to see it demolished.

"That is a horrible looking thing. It's like the center of a war zone or something," said Bob Bruce, 73, a retired high school counselor.

A mixed bag of memories

Most days, 65-year-old Cliona Lim, a retired landscape designer, loves walking her dog past her old River Forest homestead — the one A.J. Andrews built in 1907 for $3,000, according to Laurel McMahon of the River Forest Historic Preservation Commission.

Lim said her Irish immigrant dad, Michael O'Kiersey, purchased the home for $15,000 in 1950.

The youngest of three children, Lim recalls living in the house as one long indoor game of hide and seek, with all its tucked-away nooks and crannies and turn-of-the-century stylings.

It was also a place where her community-minded mom, Cora, staged summer carnivals in the backyard, and at Halloween produced a "spook house" in the basement. All the kids in the neighborhood joined in.

In the large backyard, lots of trees and flowers could be found, including several spiraea (Bridal Veil) bushes. Years ago, one of them was blooming on the day she married Richard Lim, and it blooms each year on their wedding anniversary, she said.

For financial reasons, she and her siblings sold their family home on Oct. 24, 1996 to the Trages for $193,000.

"After the Trage story [about Catherine's death in 2008] hit the local newspapers, I kind of divorced myself from the house," said Lim. "OK, I tell myself, it is someone else's now and I have no business there, even though I live real close and see it just about every day.

"But when I saw this notification in the village newsletter, it just hit me like a ton of bricks. Now my parents are really gone. Now I can't ever go back again and look at the house and get those fond, fond memories back.

"To see it demolished, without some kind of a recognition of everything that happened there seems, you know, like a life that is gone, and you bury whoever it is, and no one ever takes any notice of that life again."

Gee is still reeling from the loss of her friend, Catherine Trage, and her family's close relationship with the children.

"My daughter got married in May of 2007," Gee said. "Shortly before that, we were hearing some rumblings, but not really paying attention. Their daughter, Regan, was in our daughter's wedding. They seemed loving toward each other, happy. We were close to their kids, and they were good neighbors."

The day Catherine Trage died, the Gees learned of it on the Internet, like most everyone else. After that, the neighbor relationship changed.

Post-fire, living next door hasn't been easy either. Someone threw debris out the window and it landed in the Gees' garden. The Gees cleaned up the mess themselves. In the years after the fire, she has witnessed strangers entering the house and taking things out.

"We frequently would call the police, because we didn't know who it was … and a couple of times the police had to pull their guns," she recalled. "It's not fun to live next door to that."

Holding out hope

Not everyone is pro-demolition though.

"I was surprised that it had gotten to that point without it being brought to the preservation commission," said architect Tom Zurowski, a member of the River Forest Historic Preservation Commission. "We could have brought a perspective, perhaps, and some insight as to how to deal with it."

According to Braiman, via the court proceedings, mold experts, engineers and contractors walked through the house, and presented expert opinions that it would cost about $400,000 to make the house safe and habitable.

These findings, plus the fact that the property at 203 Franklin Ave. is not considered "of architectural significance" in River Forest, is what swayed the judge to order the demolition, Braiman said.

Tears well up when Lim reminisces about the old house. It was the center of the neighborhood, or perhaps just the center of her world, she said.

"The Trages spent a couple of years doing the renovations on it, and it seemed like they were happy there," said Lim. "Then, who knows, the financial problems … whatever, and the marriage turned sour, and then the fire. Gosh, her poor family. Her parents, your heart breaks for them."

Gee just wants some closure for everyone.

"My mother-in-law lives with us and she has Alzheimer's. So every day she asks me why the house next door is boarded up because she forgets. So I have to relive it every day," she said.

"I don't want to see a McMansion next to me. But to have a moderate-size house that someone lives in and loves, it would be symbolic of starting over."

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