When Miles and Susan Harris bought their Gunderson-built home 11 years ago, they were under no illusions. “It needed everything except a furnace, and that’s because the furnace went out during the walk through, and we got a new one” (as part of the deal), recalls Miles.
With four kids, one bathroom, and a kitchen with only 2-3 feet of counter space and “one drawer that would fall out” if you tried to use it, says Miles, they knew they’d eventually have to make a decision: add on or move on.
Judging from the record number of permits issued by the village in the last few years”and the fact that it’s hard to find a block without at least one major construction project in progress”the Harrises went the way of many Oak Parkers and built a large addition. Their efforts earned them a Historic Preservation Award, one of three of the 12 recipients to win in both the restoration and addition categories (see the sidebar for a complete list of categories and winners).
Each year, the all-volunteer Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission accepts nominations for the preservation awards (or nominates projects itself). Standards set out by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior focus on preserving the distinctive materials, features, spaces and craftsmanship of the past.
Last week we looked at the award-winning restoration of the exterior of an 1867 Italianate-style home. This time the focus is on two historic homes”a Gunderson in the Gunderson Historic District and a Frank Lloyd Wright in the Wright Historic District”that have been both restored and expanded with major additions. Instead of running afoul of the Historic Preservation Commission, they’ve been singled out for praise.
Before the Harris family built a 4-story addition (basement, first, second and third floor space was added to the rear of their home at 732 Gunderson Ave.), they considered moving. Sort of.
“We did look, but I wasn’t open-minded,” admits Susan. “I’d decide I wouldn’t like [a house] before I’d see it.”
There was never a possibility that they’d leave Oak Park. But even though Miles would have been OK with another home, Susan didn’t want to budge. “I love this house, this neighborhood. I’m very partial to South Oak Park. We’re in walking distance to the schools. I’m very pleased with Longfellow, with Julian,” she explains.
When they couldn’t find the space and amenities they wanted without going to a different neighborhood, Susan realized she wasn’t willing to make that sacrifice, even though she admits that remaking their home was extremely costly.
“We didn’t lose anything, but economically it wasn’t the smartest,” says Miles.
But now that the work is done (the family did move out for four months while construction was in progress), they couldn’t be more pleased with the results. Contractor Von Dreele-Freerksen added about 12 to 15 feet of space to each of the home’s four levels. The expanded basement now has room for a pool table, ping-pong table, and air hockey game. On the first floor, they put in a powder room and created a great room by expanding the existing kitchen and adding a family room. A staircase was added to provide access to the basement from the family room.
The great room “has become a gathering space. Before I had to make a choice: cook or help the kids with their homework. I couldn’t do both because it was so small. Now we can talk as I cook, so I cook so much more,” says Susan. The gourmet kitchen includes a Wolf stove, two ovens, an island with four barstools and granite countertops.
On the second floor, they converted the smallest bedroom to a master bath and added a master bedroom. With space gained by taking out the radiators (they put in forced-air heat and central air conditioning), the bedrooms also got walk-in closets.
The third floor already had a bedroom, but an expanded space up there now has dormers and skylights.
The exterior of the home also got a facelift, with new paint and a completely rebuilt porch. Enclosed by a previous owner and falling apart, the porch was opened up, returning it to the original design according to “what they could figure from tearing it down,” says Susan.
Preserving and restoring original details was a driving force throughout the project, she notes. The contractor custom milled new woodwork to match the existing wood. Original built-ins and leaded glass were saved and reused, and new built-ins replicated the original designs.
“We didn’t want to be able to tell where the old ended and the new began,” says Susan.
With a “wonderful, livable” home big enough to house four kids but cozy enough “so we won’t rattle around even after the kids are grown,” Susan insists she never wants to hear talk of moving again.
“We will grow old and die in this house,” she says. “I love it every day.”
The Wright kind of addition
Unlike the Harrises, Jim Dee and Brent Kaufman of Vintage Renovations bought a home in Oak Park to renovate and sell. And as historic homes go, they tackled the Holy Grail with the Thomas Gale House at 1027 Chicago Ave., designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1893. Not only is it a contributing structure to the Wright Historic District, it’s also a designated Oak Park landmark.
“It was a bit of a challenge,” admits Dee, a longtime resident of River Forest who gave up a lucrative tax consulting career to restore homes. Along with doing “as much research as we could,” Dee says they got a lot of help from neighbor Bill Ferdinand, who restored the nearly-identical Robert P. Parker House next door.
Both structures are early Wright “bootleg” houses, so-called because Wright built them on the sly while still employed by Adler & Sullivan. Variations of a Queen Anne style, they have prominent octagonal turrets on the front and back, and windows massed in a band.
Gale House was “not really in bad shape” when he and Kaufman acquired it, says Dee. A previous owner had turned the original kitchen into a rear bedroom, and had built a small kitchen on the back porch. They removed that porch and built a one-and-a-half story addition for a new state-of-the-art kitchen and second floor master bath. The rear bedroom was converted to a family room.
Although the rear addition is not visible from the street”and therefore not within the purview of the Historic Commission”it conforms to the existing siding and details of the house. The addition’s two second floor octagonal dormers (the bathtub sits under one of them) match the home’s turrets.
In the front of the house, they replaced a non-original porch with one identical to Ferdinand’s restored porch next door. “It was the same as ours; we confirmed that when we dug for footings and hit the old foundation wall,” says Dee.
In order to gain headroom for stairs going up to the third floor, they also added skylights. Dee says the one visible from the street was “the most difficult hurdle” in negotiating the project with the village, but it was eventually approved.
Inside, they stripped all the old wood and saved and reused everything. “Talking to people, we learned that touching anything original decreases [the home’s] value,” says Dee. “We restored pieces we traditionally would have gotten rid of, like window trim with deep scratches.”
All of the original float-glass windows remain; Dee says they contain the largest field of glass Wright ever used, and he’s heard they’re worth about $10,000 a piece. The original claw-foot tub was saved for the master bath.
Now that the project is complete, the home is for sale, with an asking price of $1,295,000. It’s been on the market for 90 days, but Dee says that’s to be expected for a home marketed to the top 1 percent of buyers.Linda Downing Miller contributed to this story.