Changing market indicates Oak Park fixer-uppers are getting another look

Old Victorian gets new lease - on life

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Writer

For years, 544 Forest Ave. gave off a certain vibe. It was a vibe not uncommon in a town such as Oak Park where historic homes line the streets. From the sidewalk, the home's frame and distinguishable details hinted at a grand past, but the years had not been kind to the home. A sagging front porch and unkempt exterior only hinted at the changes wrought to the 1904 home in the century since it was built. The interior had been updated in the 1960s but had not entered the current millennium.

In December 2012, an interested investor bought the home from the family who lived there for years. Intent on salvaging the historic details that remained while also making sure the house survived another hundred years, he brought in Paul Wicklow of Wicklow Development Group in Oak Park to handle a thorough renovation of the home that would be sensitive to the home's past while preparing it for a modern family.

Cynthia Howe Gajewski listed the home for Beyond Properties and believes this kind of home is what buyers are looking for.

"There is a big demand for homes that have that old feeling but have been beautifully restored with modern amenities," she said.

The market certainly responded to this home. After two and a half weeks on the market at $899,000, the home is already under contract.

Gajewski noted that the home had important qualities that initially attracted the seller.

"I think what drew the seller in was that it was a Victorian," she said, "but it had a lot of light and was really open."

The home also came with a large lot, but because it had a backyard that was primarily concrete and an overgrown front lawn, the size was overshadowed by the lack of landscaping.

The previous owners bought the house in the 1960s and at that time, completed a big renovation that included opening the kitchen to the family room and putting in a large structural beam. That open space made for good flow, but the rest of the updates were not of the timeless variety.

Time capsule

Wicklow and Gajewski agree that little else from that earlier renovation was likely to draw in a buyer today. Saloon-style swing doors led to the kitchen, and flocked wallpaper graced the dining room walls. A now-decorative fireplace in the front parlor was covered in paneling.

As Wicklow puts it, the house was an interesting study.

"This was a time capsule," he said. "In the '60s they redecorated, but they really didn't do much structural work. We've done the biggest changes in the home's history. The plumbing was a mess. They still had the original lead piping, but in the '60s, they connected new piping to the lead piping, using a system of radiator hoses. The walls were still full of original knob-and-tube wiring."

Luckily, Wicklow has years of experience breathing new life into old houses just like this one.

"We go through and deal with all the layers of dysfunction," he said, "and fix it."

The house now boasts all-new electric, HVAC and plumbing systems, providing the mechanical skeleton to support the house for generations to come.

The 1960s redecorating may have obscured some of the home's original features, but Wicklow was able to uncover and restore many of them during the renovation process. Throughout the home, the original stained-glass windows with gem-like insets have been carefully preserved. In the dining room, fake wood paneling was removed to reveal the room's original wainscot, and lincrusta, a patterned wall treatment, decorates the walls of the main stairwell of the home.

In the front parlor, the decorative fireplace was uncovered to reveal tiling and a brass cover that are original to the home. In the entryway, a built-in bench provides seating for visitors, and transom windows on the second floor fill the rooms with light.

Wicklow noted the original garage also still exists.

"You can tell that was probably made for a Model T," he said, "because it certainly wouldn't fit a car like we drive today." A newer garage was added to provide actual parking for vehicles.

Modern renovations

Wicklow said he was hired to "rehab and reinvent" the space, and he did so with an eye to how families live today.

"We certainly utilized the space as well as possible. With a master suite on the second floor, with three other bedrooms, and a finished attic with another full bathroom and bedroom, you have the capability to have a master on either floor. It's ready for a big family."

The home now includes five bedrooms, four full bathrooms and family rooms on the first and third floors. Originally unfinished, the attic now provides a lot of living space. Gajewski noted that because the home is located in the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District, they obtained village approval to dormer part of the third floor to provide for easier access.

Now the space includes a large family room, full bedroom and bathroom, as well as bonus space. A small room with built-in benches offers storage potential and perhaps quite a bit more. "This secret room is every kid's dream," Gajewski noted. "With its angled door and built-in seat, it makes an awesome fort."

On the first floor, an obvious way to bring the home into the 21st century was to update the open kitchen. The completely new kitchen now opens into a family room. Another important change was opening up a wall between the front and middle parlors. According to Wicklow, "Opening that up changed everything on the first floor."

Gajewski concurs, noting that the change provided a sight-line from the front of the house to the rear. Not only does it allow in more light but lets parents keep an eye and ear out for children at all times.

Wicklow said the improving market is keeping him busy.

"Before, this house wasn't going to appeal to most buyers," he said. "People like the old houses, but they like to see the work already done. When people want to nest, they want it already done for them."

But the quick turnaround from fixer-upper to under-contract indicates that there is an appetite for homes like this.

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