Putting the history back in historical

1890s row house renovation marries original, new features

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

The Emerson Ingalls Row Houses built in 1891-92 serve as an architectural welcome  on the bend in Forest Avenue that leads into a two-block expanse of significant homes ending with the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio. 

Designed by Oak Park architect William Van Keuren, who is also credited with the design of the Cicero Fire House on Lake Street, now home to the Oak Park River Forest Historical Society, the brick row homes stand next to Wright's Frank Thomas House. 

With their center-of-town location across the street from Austin Gardens, the townhouses garner the admiration of tourists and locals alike. When Gayle Riedmann purchased No. 206 in 2014, the charming façade had fallen on hard times, and the inside was even worse. 

At some point, the home had been carved into a rooming house of sorts, and the updates and maintenance had been few and far between. No stranger to the neighborhood -- she previously called 1 Elizabeth Court home – Riedmann decided to tackle the project of returning the row home into a single-family dwelling.

In the process of modernizing the home, she took pains to maintain and enhance the original historic features and was honored with a Historic Preservation Award in 2017 by the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission. 

Working with local architect Debra McQueen and a few local contractors, Riedmann took her time and created a home that shines.

Uncovering the original

With falling down plaster, altered windows and an added staircase to the second floor, it was a bit hard to see the home's original beauty at the start. McQueen said that they were lucky that the other end-unit in the row homes had been largely unaltered structurally, so they could look to that unit for cues on where the fireplace should be and where windows were originally placed. 

From the get-go, McQueen says that Riedmann was devoted to maintaining everything original that could be salvaged.

"Gayle loved this building and loved this unit," McQueen said. "She was completely committed to maintaining the woodwork and the original doors."

When the construction crew demolished the wall surrounding the late-in-life addition staircase to the second floor, Riedmann says they were lucky to find the ghost of the original stairwell to the second floor. The carpenter replicated the balusters and newel post that remained to rebuild the entire staircase in the original style.

While many of the windows needed to be replaced, Riedmann took pains to save all of the original hardware, stripped it of paint and replaced the hardware on the new windows. 

She loves the bronze hardware, and admits that she is not quite sure what kind of creature is engraved on the hardware throughout the house.

 "All of the window lifts have the same little dragon or wolf figure on them," Riedmann said. "When I went to an antique store to look for light fixtures, they had a doorknob with the same wolf figure on the face. I bought it to put it on the new powder room door."

Oak Park contractor Paul Wicklow worked on the restoration of the front porch. Using pieces of limestone found under the porches of the row homes, he was able to rebuild the original limestone pillars and return the porch to its former glory.

Interior mix of old and new

Robert Jahn Construction helped transform the interior of the home and worked with Riedmann to preserve the historic details wherever possible. They removed a wall separating the kitchen from the dining area and opened up the first floor. 

A new kitchen maximized space, and Riedmann maintained the original rear staircase leading to the second floor.

 The original rear porch had been enclosed at some point, probably around 1938, based on the newspapers found behind the bead board walls. Riedmann kept the porch largely as she found it, but reglazed the windows to provide a bit of weather-proofing.

When the home was used as a rooming house, the second floor gained a kitchen, which Riedmann removed. She also turned what had been a fourth bedroom into a master bathroom on the second floor. A carpenter created pocket doors to the bathroom from original closet doors that were removed in the renovation. 

The master bedroom has transom windows and a bay sitting area overlooking Austin Gardens. While searching Chicago antique stores, Riedmann found a light fixture for the room with the same wolf faces that adorn the rest of the hardware in the house.

The second floor has two more bedrooms and another full bath in which Riedmann kept an original bathtub and pedestal sink. Riedmann found a 1930 rooming house application at the historical society, which indicated that the third floor could not be used as legal living space. Nevertheless, a makeshift bathroom and bedrooms were in place in the attic when she purchased the home. 

She added a legal bathroom and bedroom on the third floor. Throughout the house, all of the systems were modernized. Knob and tube wiring was removed, and air conditioning was added. On the exterior, paint was stripped off the copper banding, and the porch now sports three columns in the corners supports, as it did originally.

In spite of all of the changes, the retention of woodwork, stained glass and hardware and the return to the single-family floor plan creates a home that feels historically accurate. 

In her kitchen window, Riedmann displays a blue bottle found in the basement during the construction and notes that the basement was once used as a dentist's office. She acknowledges it was a long and difficult road to get the house in the shape it is in now, but she thinks it was all worthwhile.

"It really was a labor of love," Riedmann said. "It's why I don't have a second home or a boat, but it was worth it."

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