Everybody's favorite

E.E. Roberts' icon is back on the market

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

Technically, it's known as the Simpson Dunlop House, an 1896 Queen Anne-style home designed by noted architect E.E. Roberts. Around town, the enormous gray structure, set on lush grounds in the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District, is more commonly known as everybody's favorite house. Located on Kenilworth Avenue, just south of Chicago Avenue, around the corner from Wright's Home & Studio, the home enjoys high visibility on Oak Park architectural walks. 

Since hitting the market in late February, many local homeowners are wondering just what it would take to trade up and move into the $2,250,000, six-bedroom, four-full bath and two-half bath home set on an acre of carefully landscaped lawn.

History

Local architect E.E. Roberts, who designed roughly 200 homes in Oak Park, was hired to design the house in 1896 by Simpson Dunlop. Dunlop, whose brother, Joseph K., also hired Roberts to design his very similar house directly south, was a grandson of Oak Park founders Joseph and Betty Kettlestrings.

Born in Chicago in 1857, Dunlop moved with his parents to Oak Park when he was 6. A real estate developer and banker, he and his brother Joseph founded a bank in Oak Park. When he died in 1899, his obituary noted that he was one of the oldest residents of Oak Park — a reference to his early arrival in the village, not his age. 

Architectural features

E.E. Robert's career in Oak Park spanned several architectural styles, from Victorian to Prairie. Realtor Michael Kennelly of Coldwell Banker, who is listing the home for sale, noted that the style of the house — like the Dunlop home to the south — is not easily pinned down.

"It's technically a rectilinear Queen Anne-style home. It reflects the transition from Victorian to the Prairie style. The spacious floor plan of a Queen Anne combines with the clean planes and sharp angles of the Prairie style."

Throughout the home, architectural details have been maintained and restored through numerous extensive renovations. Walking through the double-doored entry, visitors find themselves in a vestibule with an original mosaic-tiled floor and tiled wainscot. The home features six sets of pocket doors, five original fireplaces, leaded-glass windows and a dining room with rich oak woodwork, including a built-in china cabinet and wainscot with a plate rail.

Some features stray a bit from the norm for Oak Park. In the basement, for instance, is an original Brunswick-built bowling lane, believed to have been installed early in the home's history. The large rear garage and coach house still show many signs of its original use. The current owners completely restored that structure, making sure that it could safely house two cars, but they left in place the stalls for the horses, and hay lofts for the livestock that once lived in the space. With several side rooms, a loft and storage rooms, the space offers plenty of possibilities for additional living space.

An evolving restoration

Owners Mary Beth Leonard and husband Tom Nielsen have spent almost 23 years restoring the home and grounds. Leonard noted that buying a mansion in Oak Park was not exactly in their plans when they dropped by an open house in 1994. 

"On a lark," she recalled, "we just happened to drive by the day of an open house and kind of looked at each other like, do we dare?"

Dare they did. When they walked out of the open house, they both knew they had found their next home. The structure, Leonard said, was very well maintained but still needed a lot of work.

Of their years of labor restoring the home, she said, "We gave it a lot of love. It's been like an affair of the heart to keep it up and keep it going for the future."

The previous owner, Dr. Charles Kramer, was a well-known psychotherapist who founded the Family Institute at the home, where he often saw patients. Leonard and Nielsen removed the multiple extra phone lines throughout the house as well as the two-way mirrors that Kramer had installed between the dining room and media room that he used to observe patients with colleagues. 

When they moved into the home during the summer, they quickly realized that adding central air to the century-old space was a high priority. Righting the garage, which leaned 8-10 inches according to Leonard, was likewise an early project. The couple hired a contractor to pour cement foundations and put in steel I-beams.

After living in the home awhile, the two renovated the kitchen — with the help of kitchen designer Lee Ann Anderson and architect Anthony Ronning. Leonard pointed out that their contractor, Steve Ryan, was instrumental in bringing the space into the next century.

"After he did this project," she said, "he was the only contractor I would have work on this house. He's just magic. He's very good at listening and coming up with a solution that was just what you wanted. He's become a specialist who has an affinity for renovating old homes."

Leonard and Nielsen renovated the upstairs master suite, creating a 28 by 15-foot bedroom with a modern bathroom that features a European shower room and a claw foot tub retrofitted with a ceiling faucet. A smaller bedroom was converted into a large walk-in closet. 

Another project was converting an enclosed part of the home's wrap-around porch into a conservatory. Leonard said it was a screened in porch when she and Nielsen purchased the home, but they found glass window panels in the garage and deduced that the room might have once been used as a greenhouse. They tiled the floor in a period-appropriate pattern and included drains and plumbing for a gardener's sink.

"My husband is the gardener," Leonard said. "He tends the ferns that are on the front porch all summer. He has a large selection of orchids and some fruit trees. Outside, he planted hydrangeas around the flag pole in the front. In the yard, we have huge swaths of daffodils, day lilies, irises and lily of the valley. He also espaliered the Jonathan apple trees. We have asparagus and a blueberry hill and a strawberry patch. It's kind of the result of his fervent imagination."

Moving on

Leonard and Nielsen are downsizing and looking forward to less time gardening and more time sailing, but they will always have a soft spot in their hearts for the home.

"Tom always says that we were kids when we bought the house," Leonard observed, "and we grew up as we learned how to take care of it. It's given us as much or more than we've given it over the years. It will be great to see how the next family loves it and takes care of it."

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