A diamond in the rough

Amanda Walker and Carol Brown gave their Sears Catalogue house a rustic farmhouse makeover

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By JOHN RICE

A farmhouse in the middle of Forest Park? That's exactly what owners Amanda Walker and Carol Brown have created at 1101 Lathrop Ave.â€"and their extensive renovation of the house recently earned them a Forest Park Pride Award.

The most interesting twist on this story, however, is that the rustic makeover was performed on what was originally a Sears Catalogue house. While the Sears constructions plans may be gone, the building contract shows the total cost of building materials was only $1,285. And Walker has taken this modest structure and turned it into a showcase of early 20th century style.

"When we bought the farm style house that was originally built in 1915, I was enthralled with the idea of restoring it to its original period," Walker said.

Forging their own path

Unlike many homeowners who attempt restoration, Walker didn't use historic replicas.

Instead, she installed real period piecesâ€"light fixtures salvaged from old houses, for exampleâ€"and furnished the home with antiques. The end result is the comfortable feel of a house that could have been transplanted from a Wisconsin farm.

The rural feel begins with the floors. "We put down 10-inch pine boards, tongue and groove, and applied an oak finish," Walker said. "The pine evokes an old country farmhouse."

This motif is carried throughout the three-bedroom structure. Pine trim was added to the windows and Walker had kitchen cabinets and countertops handmade from old pinewood.

Besides the old time feel of the wood, the kitchen features a white farmhouse sink, opposite a wooden icebox that Walker restored.

A wealth of experience

When she's not renovating homes, Walker is refinishing vintage furniture. "My mom grew up on a farm in Janesville, Wis.," Walker explained. "And I grew up in a 125-year-old house in LaGrange, so I have a love of old houses."

Her childhood home had sconces for lighting fixtures and Walker recreated this look by rescuing solid brass sconces from homes being torn down.

The owners are not only adept at saving vintage artifacts; their purchase of the house might have saved it from the wrecking ball.

When Walker and Brown were shopping for a fixer-upper, they looked in Forest Park, because Brown had vowed to "never go further from the city than the last 'L' stop." Brown was looking for an easy commute to Roosevelt University, where she's a professor.

At first glance, the house at 1101 Lathrop Ave. seemed to have too many things to fix.

The previous owner had started renovating it by sanding the floors but the house had some basic flaws.

Walker recalled that even the Realtor commented about the home's strange layout and asked, "What do you want with this house?"

One of the main doorways made Walker duck and the house had the narrowest staircase she'd ever seen. Still, she liked the home's potential, as well as its large lot.

The 71-by-180 foot property was the closest thing to a wooded lot one could find in Forest Park.

Walker later received (and rejected) offers from developers who wanted to tear down the house and cover the lot with condos. She did sell a portion of the property in April 2002 to Cherryfield Construction, Inc., who erected a spacious Victorian that sold for $595,000 and also won a Pride Award.

Getting to work

The couple closed on the house in October 2001 and Walker set to work knocking out one of the first floor walls to expand the living room. Unfortunately, this was a load-bearing wall, so she hastily put up some 2-by-12s to support the second floor.

Walker continued to expand the first floor living area, until there were no more walls to knock out. It now has a 30-by-30 foot living space, furnished with period pieces. One is an old tobacco scale that belonged to her Grandpa Murphy. The scale is topped by her grandfather's rural route mailbox. There's also a large coat rack on wheels from a 1920s ballroom.

The dining area features an old farm table Walker refinished.

Off the living room is one of the most unique powder rooms of all time. The 120-year-old sink is flanked by an old hand pump, which Walker modified into a faucet (no actual pumping necessary).

Walker rebuilt the interior staircase and added a cherry wood railing along with old-fashioned spindles.

She also did all the drawings for the second floor addition. The finished space includes three new bedrooms and a master bathroom.

As if the first-floor powder room wasn't striking enough, Walker installed a custom-made sink upstairs. It has a slate surface supported by bar stool bases and features copper vessel sinks. It not only looks early-American, it could pass for early-Roman.

Suspended from the cathedral ceiling of the master bedroom is an 85-year-old fan. Walker loves ceiling fans: the one historic replica she's ordered is a cable fan for the first floor.

The master bedroom has hurricane lamps on the nightstands. At the foot of the bed is Walker's great-grandma's cedar chest, beautifully refinished in a rich dark stain.

Besides ceiling fans, Walker also loves windows. The original ones were not energy efficient, so she replaced them with French-style casement windows. They give the house an airy feel and pleasant views of the neighborhood.

The owners especially enjoy looking out on the cobblestone surface of Fillmore Street. In fact, Walker likes cobblestones so much, she constructed a sidewalk of paving bricks leading to the front stairs.

As for the wooded lot on the east side of the house, the owners thought it was more jungle than forest. Walker used her Bobcat to clear out the underbrush and bring in fresh topsoil. A new front porch was constructed of Douglas fir, with the posts and railings matching the ones inside the house.

At the west end of the property, the owners built a garage that bears a strong resemblance to a barn. Walker installed a second floor workshop where the hayloft would have been.

She'll need it, as the garage is filled with antiques awaiting restoration.

Modest beginnings

Walker is a self-taught contractor who learned carpentry, electrical work and refinishing on her own. She also received valuable assistance from carpenter Lenny Dudek.

During the renovation, however, Walker was unable to identify components of the original Sears structure. More than one neighbor, though, assured her that the house had been constructed from a Sears kit.

The retail giant sold mail-order houses from 1908 to 1940, according to a Christian Science Monitor article on mail-order homes. They ranged in price from $495 to $4,115. Most of the 75,000 homes sold during this period were constructed in Illinois.

Forest Park, with its easy access to rail lines, would have been an ideal spot to build a Sears home because the 30,000 piece kits were shipped to customers in two boxcars. It was up to the homeowner to lug the building materials to the construction site.

The kit came with a 75-page instruction book. Sears promised that "a man of average abilities" could construct the house but included the estimated labor costs of having someone else build it, states the article in the Monitor.

An Oak Park contractor, Joseph Bristow & Co., hammered together the Lathrop house.

The Sears kit didn't include bricks or cement but did advise that 1,300 cement blocks would be needed for the foundation and basement walls.

Heating, electrical and plumbing were also not included, as many of the municipalities of the time didn't have electricity or water systems. Instead, for $23, you could buy a dandy outhouse.

Sears eventually offered 370 different models of homemade homes.

Its best selling house was the Crafton, a 600- to 800-square-foot model that cost between $911 and $1,165.

In 1911, Sears began offering mortgages, a policy that later proved to be disastrous. Sales of the homes peaked in 1929. By 1930, the Great Depression had caused housing starts to decline by 53 percent, the Monitor states.

Two years later, Sears began losing money on its mail-order homes.

Worse, the company foreclosed on and evicted customers from their homesâ€"a public relations nightmare. Finally, sales of the Sears Modern Homes ceased in 1940.

Walker and Brown have succeeded in turning their Sears home into an exquisite period piece, but they're not done yet. They're searching for another fixer-upper in Forest Park.

They look forward to the challenge of a new restoration but will continue to live in their dream farmhouse on Lathrop Avenue.

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