One of my favorite architects is John Van Bergen. His designs are intimate in scale, beautifully proportioned and contain the appropriate amount of detail. Most of his work in the village is modest, expressed in the Prairie style.
This year the Historic Preservation Commission chose one of his houses at 743 Columbian Avenue to be designated as a Historic Landmark. The property owners, Cathie and Steve Fuglsang were delighted to receive this coveted distinction. Cathie had long “wanted a plaque house in Oak Park.”
The two-story Smith House was built to command the corner at Columbian Avenue and Thomas Street. Originating in Oak Park, the Prairie School of architecture is one of the few indigenous American styles that occurred between 1905 and 1915, fading after World War I. The stucco-with-wood-trim structure is square in plan with a one-story glassy sun porch facing east. The low pitched hip roofs with wide overhanging eaves are trademarks of the style that was invented by our local master, Mr. Wright, who professed that, “Democracy needed something better than a box.” Further characteristics of the style are the horizontal wood trim and bands of patterned glass casement windows, all painted or stained in the natural colors of the plains.
Van Bergen worked for George Griffin, E.E. Roberts, F.L.Wright, and William Drummond, all in Oak Park, creating a respectable professional pedigree. Praising his experience with Griffin, he said, “To work for Walter Griffin at $6 per week, I think that is more than I was worth.” Van Bergen said Griffin “was not only a skillfully trained architect but also a great teacher for me. He had no end of patience for a very poor draftsman.” His modesty provides a glimpse into this talented architect. Following the war years, Van Bergen moved to Highland Park, citing that Oak Park was built up and there were too many architects competing for what little work remained.
The Fuglsangs have lovingly restored and updated the three-bedroom frame residence. They worked as a team with Cathie doing the research and design, while Steve concentrated on the engineering and construction. They realized historic buildings must change to survive. It is not acceptable to live like you’re in a museum. But the owners opted to change as little as possible, which maintains the authentic historic materials. The house is like a beautifully restored violin, well used and respected.
We need kitchens that are modern and a part of the house, mudrooms that handle all the soccer equipment and cold weather gear that is with us for months. It is expected to have closets that meet our needs and beautiful baths in our master bedrooms. A place for a reasonable-size TV is not too much to ask for. Yet all these demands must respect the historic context. The Fuglsangs have faced this challenge and realized a home of historic distinction, one that will serve modern demands.
The side entrance is defined by a small flat-roofed structure that contains a foyer and powder room. Turning to the left, a compressed T-shaped frame reveals the axial organization. One ascends a short flight of oak steps to the elegant wood-trimmed living room. The focal point is established by a Roman brick fireplace with built-in glass door cabinets and small square accent windows above. To the left, the living room opens into the glassy sunroom with its distinctive pattern of shaped casement windows and low ceiling. In contrast, the well-proportioned dining room is located on the other side. The character of this room is warm and comfortable with a wood-beam ceiling and an intimate bay window banquet. The owners opted to remove the wall between the dining and modern kitchen for a more desirable open relationship. Upstairs, the Fuglsangs have one more project awaiting them, a new master bath and dressing room.
Now Cathie and Steve are contemplating the perfect place to install their well-earned bronze plaque from the Historic Preservation Commission.
Garret Eakin is a practicing architect, preservation commissioner and adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute.