Inside stories

Take a walk through history on the Historical Society's Parade of Elegant Homes … River Forest at 125

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter


In 1925, Joseph Butler, commissioner of streets and sanitation for the city of Chicago, built a Spanish Renaissance-style "country home" in River Forest. In the massive living room, he included great expanses of arched, stained-glass trefoil windows, white marble floors, a hand-carved marble fireplace, and hand-carved and painted wood moldings and beams. He also had cloisonné artwork and mosaics embedded in the walls.

Makes you wonder what a civil servant earned in those days, especially one who spent the work week living at the Drake Hotel.

"Garbage was gold in 1925," suggests current owner Donna Lambert. Or perhaps rumors of Butler's mob ties are true, despite the vehement denial of his grand nephew, who stopped by to see the house a few years ago.

Whatever the reason, the house feels like a palace and was constructed like a fortress. "A contractor told me a train could run into this house and the train would lose," recalls Lambert.

The home's elaborate coach house has an apartment upstairs""for [Butler's] boys," she speculates"with four phone lines connected to rooms in the main house and a 2-foot thick floor "that could withstand machine gun fire," she says.

The Butler House will be featured, along with seven other distinctive River Forest homes, in the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest's Parade of Elegant Homes housewalk this Saturday. Held in conjunction with River Forest's 125th anniversary celebration, the walk offers "a broad spectrum of houses that represent different periods in River Forest," says Jean Guarino, co-chair of the event with Kelli Kline.

Homes on display range from the 1858 David C. Thatcher House, the oldest residence in River Forest, to a contemporary Prairie-style home built in 1989.

The housewalk is a major fundraiser for the Historical Society. "People think because we're located in Pleasant Home we get money from the park district. That's not true"we pay salaries, rent, insurance," explains Guarino. "We'll use the money for basic operating expenses, to keep us

At home in the palace

Matthew and Donna Lambert moved from Virginia to River Forest 10 years ago. They used research on school districts to narrow their choices to a few communities, including River Forest, and were blown away when they walked into Butler House.

No wonder. A 3-inch thick front door, its round windows embedded with glass jewels, opens to a black-walnut paneled entryway and then to the huge living room. Its floor-to-ceiling, stained glass windows depict Christopher Columbus, two of his three sailing ships (Lambert suspects one was left out because it sank), and Queen Isabella. There's also a fanciful rendition of Chris and Isabella together on horseback.

"Joseph Butler claimed to be to be a descendant of Columbus. He was an Irish guy, so don't ask me how," comments Lambert.

The house needed a bit of work, though. The previous owner had painted everything stark white, including the elaborately hand-carved and hand-painted decorative beams that line the entryway and living room archways and ceilings. Lambert suspects the colors on those beams were vivid"red, yellow, aqua, even gold leaf"but it would be painstaking and prohibitively expensive to uncover them.

But Lambert, an interior designer, has done a lot of other work to return the house to its former glory. She opted for a softer white on the living room walls. A four-step faux painting process returned softer golds and bronzes to the marble fireplace. At the front of a serving niche near the entrance to the room, Lambert added a copy of an antique altar, which serves as a bar. The niche is painted red, to match the red hair of a mosaic angel in a nearby wall.

The dining room, entered through an original grillwork entry gate, features mosaics of cherubs and soldiers, and a somewhat incongruous Wedgwood panel, embedded in the walls. A 19th century Italian frieze runs around the room's perimeter. Lambert found a painted screw inside a built-in corner cabinet, and replicated its red color on the walls.

When the Lamberts moved in, the kitchen was tiny and the attached family room oddly configured. They enlarged the rooms by enclosing a semi-outdoor space. Windows, walls and doors were moved and included to save as much of the original structure as possible.

"We found a contractor who worked on churches," recalls Lambert. "No one else would bid on [the job]."

Two wall friezes, each weighing 500 pounds and stuck into 12-inch thick stucco"one depicting gladiators and the other the Blessed Virgin"were salvaged and incorporated into the addition. The family room also retains an original corner fireplace.

Although the Butler House is rarely on housewalks, Lambert finds herself welcoming curious visitors frequently. "People often stop and look at this house and I let them in," she says. "We're fortunate to be the current caretakers, and we share it."

Open houses

Along with Butler House, the other homes featured on the Parade of Elegant Homes housewalk are:

• David Cunningham Thatcher House, 1858

This historic Italianate house, possible built by River Forest founding father Ashbel Steele, is the oldest residence in the village. David C. Thatcher bought 640 acres in 1854 and built his country home at Lake Street and Thatcher Avenue. The house was moved to its present location around 1900.

Current owners are in the process of preserving and upgrading the house.

• Solomon Thatcher, Jr. House, 1874

Solomon Thatcher, Jr., no relation to
David C. Thatcher (until later, when Solomon married David's daughter), built what was once a large, brick Italianate house with a four-sided tower on top. In 1918, a subsequent owner tried to turn it into a Spanish castle by stuccoing the brick and removing the tower, front porch and porte cochere.

The present owners have had most of the stucco removed. They plan eventually to put the tower back on, too (Guarino says height restrictions don't apply if homeowners can show they're restoring a home's original construction).

• David A. Thatcher House, c. 1880

This three-story mansion was built by David A. Thatcher, son of David C. Thatcher. David was a friend of George Pullman, and all of the cherry and oak wood used to panel the halls, living room, dining room and billiard room were milled in the Pullman shops.

The original Queen Anne had a fireplace in every room, a third floor ballroom, a wraparound front porch, bay windows, steep roof and windowed dormers. But in 1919, new owners altered the exterior, adding huge pillars to give it the look of a Southern plantation.

The current owners spent 10 years restoring the house, including the large terrace and conservatory added in the 1940s.

• Charles A. Wilmeroth House, 1878

Built by members of the Solomon Thatcher family, this Italianate Victorian originally consisted of two rooms on the first floor and two bedrooms upstairs. The twin parlors are now combined into a single space that includes the original fireplace. A small kitchen (now the mud room) and a dining room were added in 1890.

The house has since been expanded with a large kitchen and family room downstairs and an addition upstairs. The tall, narrow proportions of the original windows have been replicated in the family room

• C.C. Collins House, 1906

Oak Park architect E. E. Roberts designed this Tudor Revival house, and considered it one of his best. The exterior, with its brick ground floor, half-timbered upper walls and steeply-pitched roof with projecting gables remains unchanged, except for a kitchen addition.

In spite of its medieval exterior, there's a strong Prairie-style influence in the home's interior. Wood-burning fireplaces are focal points in the living room and sitting room. Casement windows are banded together and wood trim defines the ceiling throughout the first floor. The dining room has dark-stained paneling anchored by a built-in breakfront.

• Joseph Penn Carolan House, 1929

Built for a newspaper executive who also served as a Cook County commissioner, this Tudor-style mansion features a deeply pitched slate roof, stone exterior, vertical leaded glass windows and stucco and wood accents.

The present owners added a two-story family room, using the same material as the original façade. The addition has wraparound leaded glass windows, a beamed ceiling, porcelain tile flooring, a faux leather finish on the walls and a framed mirror above the fireplace that disguises a large plasma TV.

• Michon-Buckley House, 1989

Owners Dennis Michon and Jean Buckley demolished a decaying old house and built a Prairie Revival home that reprises many elements from Frank Lloyd Wright's designs. The exterior features a low-pitched roof, overhanging eaves and a broad chimney. Art glass windows have geometric patterns. Inside is natural woodwork, a massive brick wall with a see-through fireplace, a built-in buffet and reproduction Mission furniture.

The Historical Society's Parade of Elegant Homes housewalk is this Saturday, April 9, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tickets are $30 in advance and $35 at the door ($25 for Historical Society members, including anyone who purchases a membership). Pick up tickets on Saturday at the River Forest Women's Club, 526 Ashland Ave. All eight homes are within a mile of each other. Call 848-6755 for reservations or more information. 



Reader Comments

No Comments - Add Your Comment

Note: This page requires you to login with Facebook to comment.

Comment Policy

Facebook Connect