On May 18, Oak Park's oldest Bed & Breakfast celebrated a quarter-century of serving guests. Built in 1890, the Queen Anne Victorian on the corner of Kenilworth Avenue and Erie Street has been welcoming people from all over the world into the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District and downtown Oak Park since 1989. Owners Gloria and Daniel Onischuk say that while the neighborhood, and the home, are now highlights of the village's architectural heritage, the course of this true labor of love didn't always run smooth.
The Onischuks moved to Oak Park 38 years ago with their eight children and Daniel's mother. According to Gloria, the village was a different place then.
"We came to Oak Park when it was affordable," she recalled. "The older gentleman who owned the home was renting it out, along with the house behind us on Grove Avenue. His plan was to purchase the two homes to the north of those two and knock them all down to build condos. When he died, his wife sold all of the properties instead, and we were able to buy 'the big house,' as we call it. It was a sealed-bid auction, and we got the call that we were the highest bidders."
The grand old house had not been well cared for in years.
"The house was in disarray," she said. "The heating system had blown up two years before, and the water pipes and radiators had busted. A previous neighbor told us there were humongous icicles hanging out the windows. The house literally had no walls and no ceilings. The floors were warped and there was evidence of vandalism. The outside of the house looked like something out of Frankenstein."
The only room that survived unscathed was the dining room. Gloria credits the room's survival to the presence of a Jesuit priest who used to rent a room in the house and say Mass in the dining room.
A lot of goodness
When they first moved in, life wasn't easy going for the Onischuks. With a large family and a serious clean-out of the home, they were the object of neighborhood scrutiny.
"Because Oak Park was going through a rough time real estate-wise," Gloria remembered, "a neighbor called the fire marshal about us because he thought we were operating a commune. When the fire marshal came to our house, I told him he could see the birth certificates because all the people living here were my children, and he turned beet red. He eventually became one of my good friends and helped me place the fire alarms in all the right places in the house."
The garbage collector was initially put off by the piles of debris, including the many unusable radiators, put out for collection, but he too became a friend of the family. The Onischuks called on other friends in the trades to help rehabilitate the seven-bedroom, three-bathroom house for their family, and, eventually, the house began to shine.
Gloria remembers one good friend who came over with three simple requests:
"She said, 'Get me some Murphy's oil, some soap and an ashtray. The staircase is mine.' And she scrubbed that staircase with a toothbrush until it was perfect. This house really brought out a lot of goodness in people."
Gloria and Daniel's decision to open a bed & breakfast in their home 25 years ago, had a lot to do with timing. Having three teenagers still living at home might not have been the ideal time to begin offering lodging to strangers, but fate stepped in.
"My first five children went to trade school or junior college, but then child number six wanted to go to a four-year college, so I knew I had to earn some money. About that time, my mother-in-law passed on, and as I was cleaning her room, someone from the community suggested I could rent it out as a bed & breakfast room. I wasn't really sure what that was, but she explained it, and around that time Governor Thompson passed a bill that allowed all of Illinois homes to open bed & breakfasts."
What started out as one room soon turned into five, the maximum allowed by the state, and the Onischuks started filling a need in the community. Today they serve guests from all over the world. Gloria keeps a map up in the common space and allows guests to place one pin in their home town.
"I've had a map of the United States for 15 years. Then a German guest sent me a map of Europe, so I put that up on another wall. Then a guest from Japan drew the Japanese islands on the map, and a Korean guest did the same. Everyone wants their home to be on the map."
Guests come from for a variety of reasons. Gloria acknowledges that architecture and Frank Lloyd Wright's Home & Studio are a draw, but they are not the only reason her home is bustling weekdays and weekends.
"Family is a big part of it too," she noted. "People come in town for weddings, memorial services, graduations, and they need a place to stay. People who love Chicago prefer to stay in Oak Park because it's more reasonably priced than the city, and they can just jump on a train into Chicago."
Gloria recently completed a book, available at the Oak Park Visitors Bureau, about "Grandma's keys" going more places than Grandma, based on her experience with the wandering keys of their bed & breakfast. "Guests kept mailing back the keys they accidentally took home along with a story, an apology, or even a poem. I put these all together as a way to show my kids and grandkids what is important in this life."
Under the Ginkgo Tree celebrated 25 years with an open house party on May 18 with gift bags and a decadent sweets table. Close to 100 people attended the festivities.
While Gloria and Daniel intend to stay in business as long as they are able, they look back on the past 25 years as a blessing.
"It has been a joy," said Gloria. "We're left with memories of all the people we've met."
And what about that name?
"We have Oak Park's oldest, largest, male ginkgo tree [that means no smelly fruit]," Gloria said. "The house is 124, so the tree must be more than 125 years old. It's like a peacock, very grand. When I needed a name for the bed & breakfast, I went up to my first room and looked out the window. I said to myself, 'I'm under the ginkgo tree,' and I knew I had my name."