Nancy and Alan Smiley share their River Forest home with some pretty unusual company:
73 animal trophies, purchased from a collection 25 years ago.
Walk into a house where you’re greeted by a polar bear rump in the back hall, and you know it’s going to be an interesting day.
“So,” says Nancy Smiley, warming to a well-loved family story, “it was a normal Christmas. I’d gone out shopping, and when I came home, in the narrow hall coming off the carport, there was a polar bear standing there. He hadn’t been there when I left, so, I was suspicious. I edged into the front hall and they were moving in the sable antelope, which is the size of a horse and has enormous horns, and I was even more suspicious. I thought, ‘Something’s up.’ And there was Alan, looking a little sheepish and saying, ‘Oh honey, look what’s come.’ I said, ‘What have you done?'”
What Alan had done was purchase a large collection of animal trophies”both heads and full mounts”about 73 in all. He knew about the collection through a business connection. The owner had passed away, and Alan thought the logical thing was to purchase the entire menagerie. The grouping of animals had been together many years; it was assembled by one man, a hunter, guide and collector, with all the animals killed in the 1940s and early 1950s.
Nancy finishes the story. “Alan said, ‘Well, you wanted things to put on the wall.’ It’s true. We were wondering what to put on the walls. I was considering a coat of paint, and he came up with animals.”
The couple is very happy with the decision. The animals have found a home in this house.
A Swiss chalet
The house is notable in its own right. Frank X. Oechlsin, born in Schaffausen, Switzerland, built this home for himself and his wife Rose on newly available land in River Forest. Remembering his homeland, he made it a Swiss chalet.
It took three years”from 1926 to 1929″ to build, with all the details and intricate handwork incorporated by designer James F. Denson. Early on, it grabbed the interest of local papers.
In 1926, the Examiner described plans for the exterior: “The walls of the first story have a rough stucco finish, with random rubble stone trimmings inserted in the stucco at the corners and base. From the second story line to the roof, the building will be of hand-hewn, open timber work, with stucco between the timbers. All windows will be of heavy section, custom-made steel sash and frames, with leaded glass.”
This lot was drawn from the sectioning of one of the last farms in the area, Northwoods, owned by Edward C. Waller. Due to the growth in River Forest from 1894 to 1924, Waller gradually subdivided his property and sold it off at a handsome profit.
Oechlsin was a wholesale florist, and his original landscaping of the double lot was a showpiece for his floral business, and often written up in the local press. In 1934, the Oak Leaves noted that “this property is acknowledged to be one of the show places of the villages and its landscaping has attracted the attention of thousands.”
Nancy spotted the house on a drive with a friend. “At that time, I was the alto soloist at the First Presbyterian Church in River Forest. One Sunday the soprano soloist picked me up and we passed this house,” she recalls.
“I thought ‘What a neat house,’ even though you almost couldn’t see it; the trees were all overgrown. Another friend was the real estate agent and showed me the house. I came in here and I looked around, and I just thought that this was the neatest house I had ever seen. I called my husband, and said, ‘Honey, you won’t believe this house. It looks like Ronald Colman should be coming down the staircase at any moment in his velvet smoking jacket.’ He said, ‘OK, I’ll come over and take a look at it,’ and he did.”
The Smileys made a bid on the house, which was accepted. As part of the purchase, they also bought many of the house’s furnishings, including Oriental carpets and heavy wood furniture.
Inside the house, the care and attention to details is evident. On the main floor, each ceiling is different”the dining room has varnished beams, the breakfast room has a cove ceiling, and the living room is topped off with hand-charred oak beams crossing its 25-foot ceiling.
Each room has intricate, unique parquet work wrapping the edge of the floor.
There are notable pieces of wrought iron”curtain rods, sconces and chandeliers”all different, beautiful as well as functional, and matched to the scale and use of the room. More ironwork was fashioned for the balcony, stair railings and radiator covers.
The chimney work of the living room fireplace”an enormous stone structure that climbs the height of the room”contains a small black rectangle set into the stone.
“It’s a plaque put in by the first builder showing an Amazon-esque woman in full breast plate and armor holding a dying soldier, and it says, in Latin, ‘A tribute to the Helvetian Wars.’ Helvetia is the Latin name for Switzerland,” Smiley explains.
“We didn’t see it at first because the front of the fireplace was blackened with soot. In fact, we used to chop down the Christmas tree and burn it in the fireplace. One year we were a bit too enthusiastic, and the fire blackened the stones a great deal. When we cleaned up, we saw the plaque and researched it.”
Living with the animals
For the last 25 years, the animals have flavored this home. The coat rack of deer head and hooves holds garments by the front door, and numerous heads attend every gathering in the living room.
Even though they don’t say much, the animals are certainly part of the family. Full mounts stand about, ranging in size from mink and dik-dik, a small grazer with a body the size of a house cat and finger length antlers, to the aforementioned polar bear and sable antelope, sidemen in the dance of the household. At Christmas they wear hats and collars with bows or bells. Family weddings have seen them in top hats or veils.
A number of the full mounts have names”the polar bear is Gus, a snarley small cat is Psycho. Smiley says they make few demands; she vacuums them yearly, usually when the tall ladder is out for the Christmas tree.
Many of the creatures congregate in the living room, a great room both literally and figuratively. At 19-by-35 feet, it holds a baby grand piano, three sofas, and five full animal mounts, with no sense of crowding. It has the volume to support both the size of the large heads on all four walls, and the character to incorporate the number of animals displayed.
The wall-hung heads are in sympathetic groupings, arranged by their equally sympathetic owner. “I kind of asked them, ‘Whose group would you like to be in?’ Sort of like a third grade baseball squad. ‘Okay, you little-horned guys, you go there, you prong-horned-aroos, you go over there. . . . You big heads, you get the big spot over the picture.’ And then the ones we didn’t know what to do with went on either side of the fireplace. Look, there’s a wild boar and a wild pig. They’re just unfriendly looking, so they had to be tucked in between things,” Smiley explains.
It works. A room that could feel like Teddy Roosevelt’s giant trophy case or a frozen zoo is warm and inviting. Oriental rugs cover the floor and family photos grace side tables.
The windows are very large, in keeping with the scale of the room. Each combines three long, rectangular casement sections topped with half circles. Smiley found the drapery fabric in the Arab Quarter in Jerusalem.
The house includes a number of other unusual features. The kitchen walls are steel behind the tile, perhaps prompted by a fear of fire. An original small kitchen closet is vented to the outside. It must have offered easy cold storage during winter months, at a time when ice boxes still used big cubes delivered semi-weekly.
The walls of the house are 18 inches thick. Heat is conserved in the winter, and kept at bay in the summer; the house is not air-conditioned, and yet stays comfortable, notes Smiley.
The Smileys opened their unusual and historically significant home for the Wright Plus Housewalk in 2002. Nancy recalls that one woman came in and exclaimed loudly, “Now who would want to decorate their home with dead animals?” The tour guide, seeing Smiley standing at the back of the group, was embarrassed and started to counter the comment, but Smiley just smiled and put her forefinger to her lips.
When you bump into a polar bear in your hallway, and envision Ronald Colman coming down the stairs, you don’t need to explain a thing.