When Carol Bartels purchased her River Forest home on Jackson Avenue in the 1980s, she didn’t know what kind of bargain she was getting. The Chicago Tribune had covered the architect who designed her home in 1985, and Bartels remembers reading the story about R. Harold Zook and his signature style, but she didn’t immediately make the connection when she toured the house as a potential buyer. At that time, it was hard to notice the similarities between the homes in the Tribune story and the home she would end up making her own for the next 25-plus years.
“The house was a foreclosure, and it sat on the market. I kept looking at it because a lot came with it, and I brought my husband over to see it, but it had no curb appeal. There was a large maple tree blocking the entire front view and a previous owner had screened in the front.”
Only after she moved in and began to clean up the front of the house and explore the interior did Bartels realize her house had some architectural quirks that pointed to an interesting history. She and her husband discovered that the home had been designed in 1931 by Zook, a prominent Chicago architect in the 1920s and 1930s, best known for his home designs in Hinsdale. Bartels believes her house is the only Zook home in River Forest.
Who was Zook?
R. Harold Zook was born in 1889 in Valparaiso, Ind. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology and worked for Howard Van Doren Shaw for a period of time before opening his own office in the Marquette Building in Chicago. Zook moved with his first wife, Mildred, to Oak Street in Hinsdale and created his own Home & Studio in the western suburb in 1924.
Some of his civic designs include the Pickwick Theater in Park Ridge, but Zook is best known for his residential work. In Hinsdale alone, 28 of his 34 homes remain, and it is believed he designed about 70 homes in the western suburbs of Chicago. In March 2005, his home and studio were placed on the list of Landmark Illinois’ Ten Most Endangered Historic Places. A campaign to save the structures resulted in their being moved in May of 2005 to Katherine Legge Memorial Park in Hinsdale.
Many of Zook’s homes were Cotswold-style cottages that featured wood-shingled roofs on which the shingles are layered to create an undulating effect. Zook also designed Tudor-style homes with slate tiled roofs. While his work was varied, he had several signatures that he often included in his designs. Many of his homes feature chevron-style wooden doors, scalloped wooden trim and cut-out designs of quatre foils, hearts or flowers in cabinets and shutters. A striking trademark in many homes is his inclusion of a spider-web leaded-glass window.
The Walter Johnson House in River Forest sports many of Zook’s signature elements, including cut-out designs in the original kitchen with butler’s pantry, cabinets, chevron doors and the spider-web window. Zook designed the home in 1931 for Violet Johnson after she had seen similar structures on a trip to Europe. The home was the first house built on the 1400 block of Jackson and originally boasted 4,200 square feet with an attached garage.
The second owner of the home made many changes, adding a second master suite above a new kitchen and family room at the rear of the house, adding significant square footage to the already sizeable home.
Unlike many new homeowners, when she became the third owner of the home, Bartels was able to delve into the home’s original style due to a personal connection.
“My aunt and uncle used to come here for dinner. They were friends with the Johnsons. They told me that the original paneling ran all the way up the stairs, and that the second owner had redone the dining room and breakfast rooms.”
That original Zook paneling still exists, protected by drywall. A first floor powder room also sports the original fixtures. While a purple toilet and sink may not be to everyone’s taste, Bartels notes that they are both dated by the manufacturer, May 11, 1931, and she believes they must be original to the home. Bartel also has the home’s original December 1930 building permit, which estimates the cost of building the home at $16,500.
Zook may have been overlooked in recent years, but he is not without his followers. In 2010, Betty Green, a docent for the Chicago Architecture Foundation, published a book titled, Zook: A Look at R. Harold Zook’s Unique Architecture, and she is something of a local expert on his work.
“I’ve had a passion for his work for a very long time,” Green said. “What I love is the quality and character of his work.”
While the Johnson home is not featured in her book, Green believes it is significant. “Some of the details present there aren’t in other homes. The paneling on the side of the house is at least an inch think. I haven’t seen that before. The chevron door is quite remarkable. Not all of the homes have spider-web windows as this one does. In the basement, there is a painting on the wall that is very interesting. It’s the kind of thing Zook did: a painting of a ship sailing. I can’t say for sure that he did it, but it has his scallop motif.”
After almost 30 years in the home, Bartels reluctantly decided it is time to pass the home on to its next owner. A licensed realtor, she is listing the four-bedroom home for $1,349,900. She said she loved living in a home with an interesting architectural past and hopes to pass it along to someone who will care for it as she has.
Green continues to research the work of Zook and believes there may be more of his homes yet to be discovered.
“As far as I’m concerned,” she said, “there may be others out there that we haven’t found yet.”