Mallen House returns to walk and to original style

George W. Maher-designed home extensively restored

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

This year's Wright Plus housewalk will feature a home that was last on the walk in 1991. Since that time, architect George W. Maher's Herman Mallen House has undergone quite a transformation. 

Brian DeVinck, Frank Lloyd Wright Trust research captain for the Mallen House, says that attendees this year can expect to see a home that is being extensively restored by the current owners and says the home is an interesting reflection of Maher's work.

The home on Euclid Avenue in Oak Park was completed in 1905 for the family of Herman and Ellen Mallen, who lived in the house with their four daughters. Mallen founded a furniture manufacturing business with his father and later bought his father out and ran the firm himself. 

DeVinck says the company was known for manufacturing parlor furniture and made furniture for almost every room in the house. Ellen Mallen outlived her husband and lived in the house until 1936.

An original garage with living quarters for a chauffeur above lasted only 10 years, and today has been replaced with a single-family home across the alley from the current garage. 

Subsequent owners raised a monkey named Mike in the home's solarium and reportedly donated the monkey to the Brookfield Zoo when they moved. In the 1950s the owners modernized the house and installed one of the first private pools in Oak Park in the backyard. 

A 1982 fire damaged the home, and another fire later in the 1980s also did some damage to a small upstairs corner area of the house. The current owners purchased the home in 2000 and have undertaken extensive interior and exterior restoration efforts.

Architectural history

Architect George W. Maher spent much of his childhood in Indiana and came to Chicago as a teen, when he apprenticed for the architecture firm Bauer and Hill. Maher later worked with architect Joseph Silsbee in the 1880s, overlapping for a short period of time with Frank Lloyd Wright. 

While neither worked for Silsbee for long, DeVinck says both were inspired by Silsbee and his shingle-style home designs. Wright's own Oak Park home is a shingled residence. 

Unlike Wright, DeVinck says that Maher never really broke out of the interior compartmentalization typical of the shingle-styled homes. Maher homes shared the sense of grandeur found in East Coast-style shingle homes, and he often incorporated a grand staircase in his designs.

Maher opened his own firm in the late 1880s and moved to Kenilworth after he married in 1893. He designed over 40 homes in Kenilworth. 

"Maher is to Kenilworth what Wright is to Oak Park," DeVinck said.

He also points to a two block stretch of Hutchinson Street in Chicago that boasts five grand Maher-designed homes.

DeVinck calls the Mallen House a notable Maher design, because it was executed while he was transitioning into his third phase. 

"His second phase is exemplified by Oak Park's Pleasant Home. It has clean lines and is symmetrical," DeVinck said. "This house is moving more towards his mature phase, which was inspired by the English arts-and-crafts and the Vienna Secessionist movements. It still has some symmetry and is still very rectilinear, but the porch is integrated into the body of the house and not attached to the front."

Another hallmark of Maher designs was the use of the "motif-rhythm," in which he chose something native to the site as a decorative motif for the home. 

In the Mallen House, the poppy flower appears throughout the home. It is found in the art glass, the capitals of the columns and in the plaster molding. It also appears in some of the original light fixtures, which the owners were able to find and return to the home. While they no longer exist, the home's original draperies also sported the poppy motif.

DeVinck says that a former resident of the home, whose parents owned it in the 1930s and 1940s shared photos she took in the house as a child. Noting that the photos are from a child's perspective, he says they include many details of the original exterior, the original draperies, interior window seats and the mosaic in the fireplace surround.

In an interesting twist, a house designed in Pasadena by Maher in 1906 is quite similar to the Mallen House. DeVinck points out that the Edmund Blinn family moved to Pasadena, leaving behind their Oak Park house across the street from the Maher-designed Pleasant Home. 

Now on the National Register of Historic Places and open for private tours, the Blinn Home shares the porch style, bedroom arrangement and fireplace mosaic of the Mallen House.

Restoration

Maher originally designed the Mallen House as a stucco house boasting an interior rich with ornamental details. As was often the case, DeVinck notes the house was "modernized" in the 1950s. 

Many of the interior details were simplified and removed, including the dining room built-in buffet, plate rack and the original light fixtures. On the exterior, the stucco was covered with brick, and the entry was covered with stone work. The modernization, along with smoke damage from the fires in the 1980s, created a fixer-upper opportunity for the current owners.

The current owners have taken on what DeVinck describes as "an incredible amount of work." 

They have restored the stucco and roof, opened up porches, replicated original trim, replicated windows, renovated the kitchen in an appropriate style and even had missing spindles replicated for the grand stair case. 

Aided by the photos taken by the home's Depression-era inhabitant, they have sought to return much of the house to its original state.

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