The National Historic Landmark Pleasant Home has long been considered an Oak Park treasure. The George Maher-designed home has undergone plenty of restoration since the Park District of Oak Park took ownership in 1939 and since the Pleasant Home Foundation was formed in 1990 to restore, maintain and operate the home as a museum. A recently completed project to restore the summer dining porch may not have involved a significant amount of square footage, but it contributes mightily to the historic feel of the home.
Heidi Ruehle-May, executive director of the Pleasant Home Foundation, acknowledges that the summer dining porch on the southwest corner of the home is not what you would call large.
“It’s a small space,” she said, “but it was definitely worth restoring. We have two archival photos of the porch. The original owners of the home, the Farson family, used to dine there in the summer. We have a photo of the room set up for their use. In the second photo, taken while the second owners, the Mills family, lived there, the room has more of an interior feel than an outdoor feeling. Our goal was to take it back to the Farson period.”
According to Ruehle-May, the dining porch was part of the original home built in 1897. Shortly after construction, in 1905 when the Mills family owned the home, a second-story, sleeping-porch addition was put on top of the open-air porch. The room was altered again in the 1950s or ’60s, and at some point the park district installed plexi-glass windows, which fogged up, obstructing the view of the grounds.
Architect Anne T. Sullivan, SAIA, of Sullivan Preservation, has a long-standing stake in the restoration.
“I grew up in Oak Park,” she said, “so Pleasant Home and Mills Park have always been part of my scenario. I remember before the home was open to the public, you could go inside on Day in Our Village. In 1910, when the Mills family lived there, my grandmother would go to dances at the home, so I had a romantic notion about the house.”
Sullivan, who has been a member of the Foundation Restoration Committee for over 10 years, says the restoration of the porch was a long time coming. Gilmore Franzen Architects created a historic structure report in 2002, and the porch was identified as a priority project. In 2010, the foundation received a grant through the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Johanna Favrot Fund to come up with a schematic plan for the porch.
In 2013, they were the recipient of an Illinois Public Museum Grant to restore the porch, which was matched by the Park District of Oak Park.
Sullivan notes that the grant and park district match were key to getting the project off the ground.
“One of the reasons we got the grant,” she noted, “was that we explained a restored porch would help people understand how the upper-middle class lived during the turn of the century.”
According to Sullivan, the scope of the work involved quite a bit of structural work to prepare the room to withstand the next 100 years, but the finishing touches are what visitors to the space will really see.
“The structural issues weren’t glamorous, but they had to be taken care of,” she said. “The glamorous stuff included being able to make the space open-air again with the use of removable windows and screens, the return of the bead-board ceiling, and the restoration of the original, highly-detailed cornice installed by George Maher.”
Contractor Neal Vogel of Restoric LLC specializes in historic restoration, and being brought into this project was a dream come true.
“I’m a big fan of George Maher,” he said, “and for 10 years even had my offices in a Maher-designed building in Evanston. Opportunities to work on a house like this don’t come along very often.”
As can happen in any historic project, the scope of the project wasn’t immediately visible.
“On the front end, we went in expecting one kind of work,” he observed, “but we discovered a lot more when we opened up the walls and roof. We had to swap out some of the aesthetic touches and eye-candy we had planned [in order] to address the structural issues that were covered up.”
Ruehle-May and the rest of the team trace a fair amount of the issues to the second-story addition. They found unexpected water damage, and wooden beams that were almost completely rotted through.
In spite of the structural issues, Vogel was able to restore multiple small touches that bring the room back to the 1890s.
“There were a lot of challenges, but it was a lot of fun to address them,” he said. “For such a small area of the building, the restoration work involved restoring art glass and original George Maher sconces. When I went back last week at night to give a talk, I picked up on one nuance that had escaped me during the work. I had always wondered why there were only sconces in the room and no overhead light. We restored the sconces and used original 1890 light bulbs that I had. When you see the room at night, with the warm glow of the older bulbs, the sconces just make the art glass in the transom windows glow. These kinds of discoveries are always fun.”
Restoric and its subcontractors worked on the porch’s millwork, art glass, lighting and structural issues, and Vogel credits Central Building and Preservation with the masonry work done on the room.
The porch today
As of April 10th, the summer dining porch can be viewed on tours of Pleasant Home and Ruehle-May says it is also available for events. “The space could hold a large table of 10, so it could be used for a small meeting, and it makes an ideal bar set up for a larger party. It’s a wonderful space because you have a great view of the park.”