The Walter Gale House II, constructed in 1905 on Kenilworth Avenue, was the second Oak Park home built for Gale and his wife. For their first, the couple had a young Frank Lloyd Wright design a home on Chicago Avenue. But the true origin of their second home was slightly less well known.
For years, the home was thought to be the design of E.E. Roberts, a belief purportedly based on Robert’s own son telling people his father built the house. According to Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust researcher Alma Koppedraijer, the rumor persisted for a variety of reasons.
“By the time the historic preservation movement really took hold in Oak Park in the 1970s, the story of E.E. Robert’s son was already widely believed,” she said. “Confounding the confusion, the original permit for the construction of the house doesn’t list an architect, and the actual architects’ notice of construction misspelled Gale’s name, making it hard to connect the dots. It wasn’t until the current owner took a (Frank Lloyd Wright) Home and Studio walking tour and heard that her home was attributed to E.E. Roberts, that the truth came out.”
The home has had only four owners in its lifetime, and current owners Barb Rohm Rossa and Brad Rossa had always had the original blueprints for the home that had been stored in the house. The detailed, hand-drawn prints are clearly signed by architects Handy and Cady at the bottom of each page.
Handy and Cady were Chicago-based architects who, for a time, worked from the same downtown building as Frank Lloyd Wright and were members of a group of architects called The 18. According to Koppedraijer, Handy and Cady’s style was much more traditional than Wright’s, and their Queen Anne, Arts & Crafts and Colonial styles dot the Chicago suburbs.
The Walter Gale House II is an example of Colonial architecture, and due to its unique history, much of the home’s original detail remains. The Gales sold the home in 1919 to a man who lived there until 1947, when he sold it to First United Church, then First Presbyterian Church, to use as a parsonage. The home was used as a parsonage until 2000, when the Rossas purchased it.
According to Barb, that sense of history was what drew them to the house.
“When we walked into the dining room and saw the plaster on the ceiling and the intricate molding, we were just drawn in,” she said. “My style is usually more contemporary, but we just knew this was the house.”
The dining room’s ceiling boasts an intricate striped pattern made up of plaster flowers. Decorative wood molding surrounds the doors with a leaf-like pattern. The house came with the parsonage’s original Victorian furniture, including an impressive table that expands to the length of the 14-foot room. Traditional details like the wood wainscoting are complemented by the Rossas’ more contemporary choices in wallpaper and light fixtures.
The Rossas ended up undertaking a gut rehab in order to update the home’s mechanical systems and create a more circular flow.
“We found knob and tube wiring that had to be replaced, and the plumbing had to be updated,” said Barb. “We were really focused on creating a family home. We redid the kitchen and butler’s pantry area when we first moved in, and opened up the flow to the living room by adding a door. More recently, we hired architect Roseanne McGrath to help us open up the back of the house.”
By reworking the original back porch and adding on a bit to the house, McGrath created a symmetrical rear view that is in keeping with the home’s Colonial history. The design also gave the Rossas a much-appreciated mud-room entry.
The home exudes a modern sensibility due to the updated kitchen space and elegant contemporary furnishings. And yet throughout the home, vintage details like the original fireplace anchoring one living room wall and large pier mirror on the opposite wall, ensure that this home has one foot firmly planted in the past and the other just as firmly in the present.