Photos courtesy Zak Knebel

As Realtor Zak Knebel steps potential homebuyer’s through the threshold of Frank Lloyd Wright’s storied “Bootleg House” at 1027 W. Chicago Ave., it’s understood that telling the well-heeled tale of the Thomas H. Gale House is just part of the deal.

The home’s back story is a modern-day reflection of Wright’s early years in Oak Park, and a foreshadowing of the architect he would eventually become. It’s also a key selling point for anyone interested in purchasing an historic work of Wright.

“You are looking for someone who is interested in living in a piece of art,” says Kneble, an agent for Coldwell Banker in River Forest. “They want something that is livable, but has landmark status. So this kind of house really appeals to a particular kind of buyer.”

Wright’s Thomas H. Gale House is part of a series of “bootleg houses” for which the famous architect drew up plans while under the employ of Adler and Sullivan, a local architectural firm at the time. Three of the homes are located on Chicago Avenue just west of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio.

“They are called ‘bootleg houses’ because he came up with the plan for the houses, even though [Adler and Sullivan] had forbid him from doing so,” Kneble explains. “He wasn’t supposed to be doing his own designs while he was working for the firm.”

So, Wright’s moonlighting gigs—the Walter P. Gale House, Robert P. Parker House and Thomas H. Gale House, plus a few more on-the-side commissions—got him fired from the firm, Kneble says.

The Thomas H. Gale and Robert P. Parker homes are very similar in appearance, having been derived from the plans of another bootleg house Wright had designed earlier in 1892 for Robert Emmond of La Grange. The three houses in Oak Park were built later that same year. The Thomas H. Gale House was designated an Oak Park landmark in 2002.

According to the Frank Lloyd Wright Tour group, other such bootlegs Wright designed during that time include the George Blossom House and the Warren MacArthur House in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago, as well as the Francis Woolley House in Oak Park.

The octagonal theme

At-a-glance, local buffs can certainly see Wright’s indelible markings in the Thomas Gale Home, starting with his octagonal bays joined to a rectangular core, and continuing with everything covered by high pitched roofs with octagonal dormers. The octagonal theme is threaded throughout the interior of the house, as well.

In 2004, investors purchased the home, and for the next two years gave it an architecturally significant facelift, including a remodeling upgrade. It’s been on and off the market ever since with renters mostly occupying the home. In June investors decided to try again, listing the Oak Park Landmark for just over $1 million.

“I do feel that some of the ‘high-end’ houses are selling relatively quicker here, but all of the houses in Oak Park and River Forest, if they are priced well, they sell,” says Kneble.

Taking the tour

As a member of one of Oak Park’s founding families, Thomas Hart Gale was a local real estate agent, as well as an attorney and land developer. Gale, his wife Laura and their two children resided in the home until Thomas Gale’s death in 1907.

While the house does feature several Queen Anne elements, including turrets, steeply pitched roof lines and a direct entrance, Wright’s hand is evident throughout.

The entry-way features an original Wright-designed bench and art glass window, which encapsulates an organic seed design, a la architect and former employer, Louis Sullivan’s influences, among other things.

The living room and library are now incorporated into one large space, and the formal dining room repeats the octagonal shape of the living room. In it, huge plate glass windows flood the room with light.

The retooled gourmet kitchen addition and den are seamlessly renovated and modernized. The latter includes custom quarter-sawn oak cabinetry that blends with the original woodwork in the home.

“The master bedroom, with the addition of the large master bath, is certainly a plus,” Knebel says. “With its octagonal design, it brings in tons of light into that room. It is quite pretty.”

In addition, with a recent renovation came a new 2.5-car garage that perfectly blends with the home.

“If you buy this house, instead of having a piece of art on your wall, you will be living inside a piece of art,” Kneble says.

As of mid-June, Kneble says so far queries are up, which is a very good sign. “It’s still a buyer’s market. But at the price we are at now, we feel we will sell relatively quickly.”

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....