Bucking the trend: The Ehrman House in the Wright District should not be overlooked. (Photo by Sky Hatter)

The stretch of Kenilworth Avenue that falls within Oak Park’s Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District is home to many of the village’s architecturally most significant houses. In all kinds of weather, tourists can be seen traipsing up and down the block, ogling Victorian and Prairie-style homes. The landmark Edwin H. Ehrman House at 410 N. Kenilworth Ave. may not draw in viewers with a showy façade, but the pedigree of the home makes it worth a longer look.

Designed by architect Lawrence Buck in 1908, the Ehrman House has a Prairie-style stucco façade whose simple lines belie the interior’s Arts & Crafts flourishes. Buck designed only a handful of homes in Oak Park, but he was well known throughout the Chicago area for his home designs and public works — such as the design of the gates to Lincoln Park.

Buck stopped here

Born in 1865 in New Orleans, Buck was the son of a noted artist, an inherited talent showcased in the artistic renderings of many of his projects. He relocated to Chicago at the age of 24 with his partner in architecture, John Sutcliffe. Buck kept offices at Steinway Hall from 1902 to 1920, and along with Frank Lloyd Wright, Robert Spencer and Dwight Perkins, was among the group of architects known colloquially as “The Eighteen.”

Many of Buck’s homes survive in Chicago and on the North Shore, but — as was common with architects of this time period — his work spread across the country as he sold his home designs. Buck houses were built as far away as Palo Alto, Calif., and Pensacola, Fla. The Ladies Home Journal and House Beautiful featured his house plans, and the Ehrman House made an appearance in a 1909 edition of House Beautiful. Titled “The House As It Will Be Built,” the story highlights Buck’s relationship with Ehrman and includes watercolor illustrations that Buck provided, allowing Ehrman to choose what exterior he desired.

Three owners

The house at 410 N. Kenilworth has only had three owners since it was designed by Buck in 1908. Edwin Ehrman moved to Oak Park as a boy, and he and his wife, Wilhelmina, both were graduates of Oak Park High School. A mechanical engineer, Ehrman owned a bicycle manufacturing company, was a member of Unity Church and very active in the community. He was instrumental in having Unity Temple built to house the local Unitarian congregation (which Wright belonged to). The Ehrmans raised two daughters in the house.

The second owners did what many homeowners in the 1950s did: tried to modernize the home. That meant tearing out built-in bookcases and a fireplace and adding a picture window to the living room, ripping out an original staircase, and trying to impose a colonial design on the Arts & Crafts-style residence.

The third owners, Mary and Roger Walters, have lived in the home for almost 30 years, and during that time, they have done their best to return the house to its roots while modernizing it for their family.
“Our goal has always been to honor the original architecture,” noted Mary.

Thoughtful restoration

Joanne Kelly, who is listing the home for $1,499,000 for Gagliardo Realty, said the six-bedroom home captures the best of both worlds.

“You want the modern conveniences to be architecturally true to the house. They’ve really done a great job with that here.”

Mary states that they have taken great care and a great deal of time restoring the home with an eye to Buck’s original concepts.

“We have all of the original architect’s plans and drawings as well as the carpenter’s notes,” she said, “so we’ve had a lot of documentation to work with.”

“People now have a more sensitive eye toward history that they didn’t have in the 1950s,” she observed. “Luckily, the previous owners did leave one original bookcase in the music room, and we used that to recreate built-ins throughout the first floor. Altamira Art Glass restored all of the art glass to match the panes in that original built-in.”
Throughout the first floor, the Rogers had Amish-crafted bookcases and woodwork made to replicate the original woodwork, picking up on the floating panel design of that one original bookcase.

Mary points out the raised panel detailing in the living room, veranda, office, and music room. “We think it harmonizes the rooms to have that motif repeated. We take a great deal of pride in that detail.”

The Rogers worked with River Forest designer Mark Menna to both modernize the home and return some of its historic features, emphasizing the home’s architectural features while making it comfortable for their family.

Menna’s work can be seen in some of the home’s bathrooms, including an entryway powder room that features Amish-built cabinetry and statuary marble. In the dining room, Menna was called on to solve the mystery of what should have been.

“The second owners had ripped out the original molding and put up veneer,” Mary recalled. “It was a puzzle to figure out how to replicate the vertical lines of the original molding. Mark figured it out. He found some of the outlines of the original panels and reconstructed it. This is a simplified rectilinear house, so you can figure things out mathematically.”

While the home is sizeable (approximately 7,000 square feet), one of the attributes Mary Rogers enjoys the most is its livability. “Like many Arts & Crafts houses, you come in through a hidden front entry and the home opens up to you. The continued flow leads you through the home. The radial floor plan, very typical of Arts & Crafts design, makes this a wonderful space.”

The home twice has been featured on Wright Plus, and the Rogers have also opened their home for the Parenthesis Kitchen Walk, as well as the Infant Welfare Society Christmas House Walk. A butler’s pantry for serving, plus a veranda that spans the width of the home makes the first floor conducive to entertaining, and Mary said the circular floor plan adds to the ambiance.

“With all the doors open, you can fit over a hundred people on the first floor and not feel crowded. When the Infant Welfare Society brought in a piano player, it just filled the house with music. You get a great sound and a great feeling in here.”

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