The stories houses tell

113 S. Elmwood in Oak Park a mini village history

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

Here in the near-west suburbs, we like to think we are a bit unique. No blocks full of newly built, cookie-cutter homes for us. Some new construction finds its way in, but much of our housing stock is historic. 

Along with decades of history comes decades of life. The houses here have stories to tell, from the architects and builders who designed the houses to the families who called them home for decades. 

A house on South Elmwood Avenue in Oak Park is one of countless historic homes that tells a story of its owners and of the history of the village.

Built in 1896, 113 S. Elmwood Ave. was designed by architect William J. Van Keuren. He lived in Oak Park for 30 years and maintained an office in Chicago. The architect designed many Queen Anne-style homes in Oak Park and neighboring suburbs and also is credited with the design of the Niles building at South Boulevard and Marion Street and the 1899 Fire Station at Lake and Lombard, which was recently renovated to become the new home of the Oak Park River Forest Historical Society.

Home to four families in its 100-year history, the Elmwood Avenue house recently hit the market for $690,000. Virginia Kuenster Yarbrough, who grew up in the house with her eight siblings, has created a written history of a home that her family loved for so many years.

A genealogy buff, Yarbrough turned her research skills to the history of her childhood home. Yarbrough, who now lives in Louisiana, first turned to Ancestry.com and online newspaper sources to discover information about the first two owners of her parents' home. 

Armed with what she found, and with the help of the historical society and a few kind Oak Parkers, she discovered a wealth of information about the home that she hopes will lead the next owners to fall in love with the house.

Early inhabitants, village history

Yarbrough's research paints a picture of families, a block and a village that were changing with the times. The first owners of the house were Robert "Bert" Kerr, an attorney, and his wife Blanche, an artist. 

They purchased the house from contractor Benjamin George, who had constructed the five-bedroom house at a cost of $6,000. 

 When the Kerrs purchased the home, the street was called Ogden Avenue. In 1897, the name was changed to Elmwood Avenue, and the event was celebrated with the planting of American elms. 

At the same time, the street immediately to the east, 64th Street, had its name changed to Ridgeland Avenue in recognition of the Continental Divide's location in Oak Park. This area of town was part of Cicero Township and in 1902 was incorporated by referendum as the village of Oak Park.

Blanche Kerr was an accomplished artist who graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago and taught at Hull House in Chicago. She was a charter member and later director of the Oak Park Art League. 

Bert Kerr was a lawyer and Spanish scholar and spent much of each year working in Mexico representing American corporate interests and studying Mexican law. Blanche would accompany him and paint during the trips. The Kerrs had no children, and were very active in local life, helping to found the River Forest Tennis Club and the Lowell, a literary group.

The Kerrs tried to sell their house in 1910 for $7,000, or $9,000, if the adjacent south lot was included. Failing to find a buyer, they swapped houses with Bert's father Samuel who lived at 150 N. Elmwood Ave. 

Samuel Kerr, Bert's stepmother Mary Kerr and Bert's physician brother, Ellis, and two half-brothers moved into 113 S. Elmwood Ave. Bert Kerr died in 1918, and his father the next year. Ellis continued to live in the house with his family. 

Just before his 1912 marriage to Dorothy Charlton, Ellis' Kerr's car (valued at $5,000 according to the local papers) was stolen from in front of the home. He had a garage constructed in 1920 for the cost of $197. 

Ellis Kerr went on to help found West Suburban Hospital. By 1930, Samuel Kerr's widow, Mary, was living along in the house and lived there until her death in 1936.

Yarbrough reports that the house was worth $22,500 in 1930 but lost much of its value during the Great Depression. It sold in 1939 for $8,000 and sold again in 1945.

In 1950, Yarbrough's parents, Sylvester and Helen Kuenster bought the house for $18,500, moving with their three children from nearby Austin.

The Kuenster years

"We moved in when I was three," Yarbrough said. "The house seemed so empty and giant. Then my brothers and sisters were born. My parents had a lot of kids and not a lot of money. We rented rooms on the third floor to European women."

Sylvester, known as Steve, was a manager for Northern Illinois Gas Company, and Helen was a registered dietician. Between 1951 and 1961, they added six more children to the family, and Yarbrough notes that over 100 children lived on the block during the 1960s.

"There were so many kids who lived on that block," she said. "It was an interconnected web. It was like a little society."

As her parents fixed up the house and raised their family, the village went through a lot of changes. During the 1960s, the train tracks immediately to the north of the block were elevated, the gardens at Ridgeland Common were bulldozed to make way for a sports complex, Dutch elm disease ravaged the trees planted at the turn of the century, and the two homes to the north were demolished and replaced with an apartment building.

Steve Kuenster passed away in 2005 and Helen Kuenster lived in the home until 2017, when she died at the age of 99.

Baird and Warner agent Steve Schuering is listing the home for the Kuenster children. 

Yarbrough enjoyed compiling the history of her childhood home and wrote that she and her siblings are "hoping to find a new owner who will cherish it."

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