Elegant estates under Fair Oaks

Historical Society housewalk features 6 homes in historic subdivision

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing reporter

Whenever the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest organizes a housewalk, you can count on plenty of housing heritage and that's the case with this Sunday's 11th annual walk. Frank Lipo, executive director of the Historical Society, says the housewalk season is a good time to celebrate the history of Oak Park — both architectural and personal. 

"It's a great local tradition that so many organizations do housewalks here," Lipo said. "This is only possible due to the generosity of owners who open up their homes. Every year, I'm struck by the generosity of people when we ring their doorbells and ask them to participate. People here have a real sense of pride in their homes, and for a day, we're helping them tell the stories of their houses. In the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District and throughout the village there is a sense that these houses are something special."

People from all over the world marvel at the exterior of homes in Oak Park, said Lipo, and housewalks are a welcome opportunity to glimpse the interior of intriguing private homes. But Lipo thinks their housewalk offers a bit more. 

"The Historical Society always doubles back to the people," he said, "telling stories about the first and the early owners of the homes."

All six homes are located in the Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie School of Architecture Historic District, in what was once known as the Fair Oaks Subdivision. Historical Society member Jean Guarino touts the walk-ability of this year's tour: the homes are within easy walking distance of each other, north of Chicago Avenue between Ridgeland and Oak Park avenues. This year's walk will also feature homes from a variety of architectural styles — Prairie to Tudor Revival to Arts & Crafts — and two of the homes have just been substantially renovated. 

Castle's castle

Charles Castle is credited with founding the oldest bank in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago. He brought in prominent Austin architect Frederick Schock to design his home on Linden Avenue in 1924. While Schock's name may not be well-known in Oak Park, it is a different matter just east of the village, according to Lipo. "We're proud of our Oak Park architects, but the Austin neighborhood has some great architects as well. Schock was a leading light in designing the homes in the Austin Township, and the Austin Schock Historic District celebrates his legacy."

The architectural style of this particular home is unusual. "The original owner was named Castle," Lipo noted, "and the home itself has some castle-like elements in its Italian Renaissance-inspired exterior."

The home has been extensively renovated and restored during the past year, with original features, such as a painted ceiling in the entry. The original light fixtures and woodwork have been preserved. 

Hayden's haven

The George W. Hayden House on Euclid Avenue also recently underwent a thorough renovation. Owner Katie Garner said she and her husband tried to be true to the history of the home while also making the space work for their family. 

"We completely gutted the kitchen," she noted, "and had all the cabinets made from scratch. We re-added quarter-sawn oak flooring and created a mudroom."

Lipo said the 1905 home is typical of many houses in Oak Park because it is a blend. "It looks like a Tudor on the outside, but there is some great Arts & Crafts detailing inside. It's what you often see in Oak Park: a great blend of styles."

According to Lipo, the story of the original owner is intriguing. 

"By many accounts, he owned the first automobile in Oak Park. Back in the day when the horseless carriage was quite a novelty, he was very innovative," Lipo said. "Apparently, he loved mechanical items. Stories like these are what make our walk so interesting."

Roberts reborn

Designed by Oak Park's E.E. Roberts in 1908, the Charles Schwerin House has been extensively rehabbed by owners Ron Roman and Doug Cotsamire. According to Roman, renovating the home was a labor of love.

"The house had been fairly-well preserved," he said. "Things were very much intact, including 88 original panes of art glass. The house needed a lot of immediate work in the systems and it just needed some love. The previous owners took it to the first level, and we just continued, moving up to the second and third levels."

Roberts designed the home, along with its sister house next door, for a brother and sister who both worked for the Lorenzo Tile Company, and both homes were used as models for his business. Much of the original tile remains. "Both houses have beautiful tiling," Roman said, "mosaic flooring, fireplace surrounds and walls in some of the bathrooms."

A photo of Roman and Cotsamire's dog sitting in the home, which appeared in a Burmese Mountain dog journal led to a serendipitous connection with the granddaughter of one of the early owners. She recognized the home's interior and reached out to Roman and Cotsamire, leading to a reunion, as well as the return of many historical photos and original light fixtures to the home.

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