It’s a rare sight to see vacant residential lots for sale in the dense market of Oak Park. What might be considered rarer are two lots to the north and south of an historic home with all three properties marketed as one. On the 200 North block of Ridgeland Avenue, in the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District, lot numbers 225-233 are listed with an asking price of $1.3 million.
A three-lot parcel is unusual enough in Oak Park, and the house at the center of this parcel, 229 North Ridgeland makes the offering even more distinctive. A Queen Anne Victorian with a Roman brick façade, the impressive home was built in 1897 and presents something of an architectural mystery for a town in which architectural providence is all-important.
Gary Schwab, a member of The Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest’s board for over 20 years, has compiled exhaustive research on the home. Schwab felt compelled to investigate after learning last year the home would be offered for sale for the first time in almost 60 years.
“I first saw an ad on Craigslist about someone selling light fixtures that were over 100 years old, and when I responded to the ad, I found out it was for an estate sale in Oak Park at 229 North Ridgeland,” he recalls. “The same family had lived there since 1951, and it has never been on a housewalk or tour, so I was immediately intrigued.”
Schwab describes the interior first floor of the house as something of an historical wonder. There is a wood-paneled entrance hall and impressive wood paneling throughout the first floor as well as beamed ceilings, several decorative fireplaces and art glass windows. Moved by what he saw, Schwab decided to dig deeper into the history of the home.
“Part of this was an exercise. It’s a big house on three big lots. I figured there must be something out there on it. Plus, I’m retired and have lots of time to devote to research.”
Schwab estimates he spent 20 to 25 hours researching the home, and he discovered much about its past. The 1897 edition of the Oak Park Vindicator included a construction notice for Edward Everett Morrill, who was building what was said to be a two-story, $4500 home at 229 North 64th Street, the predecessor to Ridgeland. Morrill was the treasurer of the John Davis Company, a heating and plumbing supply company. He also purchased the second lot to the south of the home and never developed it.
Schwab hypothesizes that the home cost more than the estimated $4500 construction costs, since it ended up being an oversized, three-story dwelling.
After Morrill’s death in 1907, his family sold the home to Otto Doering, a general superintendent for Sears Roebuck, who was also active in local and state politics as well as president of the Chicago Horticultural Society. Doering bought the third lot in the parcel, north of the home. When Doering sold the property in 1914, his asking price was $18,000. The Haskell family bought the house, and in the 1950s sold it to the Brewer family, the last owners of the home.
Through all his research, Schwab did not discover any information about the architect, but he believes it was likely someone noted in the field.
“I’ve looked at an awful lot of houses, and my experience tells me that because Morrill was a bigwig in Chicago and this house is so substantial, that there was a notable Chicago architect involved,” he says. “The trim throughout the home is just as good as anything I’ve seen in Oak Park, and I’ve never seen two built-in dining room cabinets in a house before. It would be really nice if someone interested in the historical nature of the house bought it.
“I suggested to the realtor that she might want to talk to a local restoration architect or someone at the National Trust about the home. My feeling is that if some more pictures of the home were circulated, an architectural historian might be able to recognize the work on the interior and help identify who built the home. “
Priscilla Kryglewski of Coldwell Banker in Schaumburg, is marketing the house for the Brewer estate. Originally listed at $1.8 million in 2011, the home and the two additional lots are now priced at $1.3 million. Kryglewski says that the size of the lots and the size of the home, as well as the history, make it quite desirable.
“The lot size is 25,800 square feet, and the house is 5,783 square feet. It’s a big house. The history is also very interesting. Before Morrill bought the land to build the original house, Anson Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway’s grandfather, was the original owner of all three lots.”
The real estate listing notes the home’s grand staircase, beamed ceilings and three porches. It also states that the property presents a development opportunity to build two or three homes on three lots, something Schwab isn’t too thrilled about.
“This home has to be a contributing structure in the Frank Lloyd Wright historic district. It shouldn’t be torn down.”
Doug Kaare, an urban planner with Oak Park’s Community Planning and Development Department, agrees that it would be difficult to tear down the existing house.
“It would seem likely that the Historic Preservation Committee would deny a request to tear down a contributing property in an historic district based on their previous rulings,” he says. “Generally speaking, unless there are extenuating circumstances, teardowns of houses that are in good shape or that can easily be rehabilitated aren’t allowed.”
Kaare adds that the vacant side lots are not protected.
“Historic district designation doesn’t prevent new construction on the vacant side lots, but if anyone wanted to tear down the house, they would have to go through a lengthy hearing process in which they would request a hearing, all neighbors within 250 feet of the home would be invited to attend, and the developer and historic commission would bring witnesses to support their case.”