Citizen historians

Oak Park fosters love of history and architecture

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

For Linda and Pete Von Dreele, a housing search in the 1970s set off a chain of events that would alter their lives forever. When the couple settled with their daughters in Oak Park, their historic home led Pete to a new career as a historic home restoration expert and Lin to a turn as an amateur historian. The couple have since retired out of state, but their touch is still felt in the community.

Natives of North Carolina, the Von Dreeles had owned homes in Tennessee and Indiana prior to moving to Chicago for Pete's job in 1970. Lin recalls that they lived in an apartment on Chicago's South Side and a home in Hoffman Estates, but neither felt like a permanent home. 

"There was no sense of community there," Lin said of Hoffman Estates. "It was not where we wanted to raise our girls."  

Price was also a consideration for the young couple. 

"We couldn't afford anything in the northwest suburbs, and we couldn't afford a home in Chicago," she said.

A WTTW documentary on Oak Park produced by the Oak Park Housing Center led them to explore housing in the village, and Lin says that within six weeks of viewing the documentary, they were the proud homeowners of 308 N. Elmwood Ave., a place they would call home for 31 years.

Architectural interest

The Von Dreeles loved the community but did not know a lot about architecture or the history of their new home. 

"It was certainly a fixer-upper," Lin said. "We had no knowledge of Prairie [style] architecture. We were delighted when former owners dropped off the original blueprints. We saw it had been an extraordinary home, and we decided to restore it."

She notes that the restoration lasted throughout their 30-year tenure in the home, as they tackled projects one step at a time. Along the way, they learned a lot about historic homes – enough to alter both of their paths in life.

Between 1975 and 1980, Lin worked on the village's Landmarks Commission, a precursor to the Historic Preservation Commission, and volunteered at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, where she credits local architect John Thorpe and volunteer Peg Zach for much of her education about local architecture.

Armed with the blueprints for their house, the Von Dreeles quickly realized their home was architecturally significant and sought to find out more. 

"Both of us were history majors, so we both clued into the fact that it was built by someone of stature," Lin said.

Designed in 1905 by Vernon Watson, their home, known as the W.H. Black House, was the architect's third house in the village based on permit date. Watson later joined forces with Thomas Tallmadge, and the duo designed 117 homes and 34 churches. Watson was known as the chief residential designer, while Tallmadge designed the liturgical spaces.

In 1978, the Von Dreeles had their home declared a historic landmark in order to receive a state grant to help with the cost of removing four layers of asphalt roof shingles roof and replacing them with period-appropriate cedar shingles. Their research on the Watson led them to look into other homes he worked on.

Lin sought out other Tallmadge and Watson-designed homes in Oak Park and River Forest, and while she was on the Landmarks Commission, surveyed other homeowners about their homes designed by the pair. 

She found that people were interested in learning more and created a house tour to allow people to see other examples of the architects' work.

A new career

In 1980, after five years of being an amateur architectural historian, Lin Von Dreele went back to school to become an urban planner, and her husband Pete also moved onto another career.

Inspired by the hands-on approach he'd taken in renovating his own home, Pete joined forces with Doug Freerksen and formed Von Dreele Freerksen, an Oak Park-based building company that specializes in historic home renovations and restorations.

Lin credits the work on their own home with inspiring him. 

"So much work was done, that it became not only his passion but part of his work too," Lin said. "He had four different careers, and the last one really fired him up."

Pete Von Dreele worked to restore historic homes for over 20 years before the couple decided to retire to North Carolina, and he sold his portion of the business. 

After donating their home's original Vernon Watson blueprints to the Ryerson and Burnham Library at the Art Institute of Chicago, Lin Von Dreele donated the rest of her architectural research records to the Oak Park River Forest Historical Society.

Her files, which were organized by archivist Elizabeth Nichols, include much of the original research on 308 N. Elmwood Ave., Tallmadge and Watson and other significant architects working in the village. 

Handwritten notes and index cards reveal Lin Von Dreele's meticulous record keeping and connections with other community members who were enthused about architectural preservation.

Historical society Executive Director Frank Lipo notes that Lin Von Dreele is a great example of how community connections make the historical society a better resource for everyone.

"She first got interested because she was researching her own home, and then she broadened the value," Lipo said. "When somebody gives us this kind of collection, we get an even better understanding of the history of the community. When Lin gave us these materials, it was part of a long tradition of people doing their own research and sharing with us."

Lipo notes that homeowners can visit the historical society's headquarters at 129 Lake St. to find out more about their own homes. From old real estate listing records to photos and newspaper articles, there are many ways to research a home's past. 

He credits Lin Von Dreele and others like her for helping build the collection that benefits current and future homeowners. 

"Being a central repository for documents and photos makes us a public resource that people can discover and rediscover, even if that history doesn't get passed on from homeowner to homeowner," Lipo said.

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