The title of oldest house in Oak Park unofficially belongs to a house on Home Avenue, but a few blocks north on Grove Avenue, there’s another contender for the title. The “Kettlestrings” house is believed to have been built in 1865 but was not the original home of our earliest settlers, Joseph and Betty Kettlestrings.
In 1837, the Kettlestrings purchased 172 acres in what is now Oak Park for the sum of $215.98 and erected their first home, a cabin, somewhere near the site of the Pier One store on Lake Street just east of Harlem. This Kettlestrings house at 332 N. Grove, on the other hand, is thought to have been built for one of Joseph and Betty’s sons.
Current owners Mary and Tim Cozzens have enjoyed all the responsibilities and perks that come with owning a historic home. For the past 18 years, they have raised a family here and done their best to honor the home’s past while hoping it will be maintained for the next 150 years.
The Kettlestrings connection
The Cozzens were the first non-Kettlestrings owners of the home. They purchased the home from Florence Kettlestrings Hall, who had been born in the home along with her brother David. While they never had the opportunity to meet Florence in person during the sale, they later were happy to hear from David about growing up in the house.
Mary recalls, “David Kettlestrings lived just up the street on Grove when we moved in, and we wrote a letter to him telling him to come by anytime he liked. He and his wife, Anne, came by, and he told stories about growing up in the house. The corners of the woodwork in all of the rooms were quite banged up, and he said that he and his siblings were allowed to ride their tricycles and bicycles in the house, which would explain that. They also had target practice with arrows through the open doorways.”
David Kettlestrings’ father was an ear, nose and throat doctor who kept his office in the house, which might explain the story about another visitor to the house. While sitting on the porch one day, Mary noticed two women taking photos of her home and others on the block. They told her they’d grown up on the block and remembered Dr. Kettlestrings.
“They asked if we’d found the eyeball in a jar. Luckily,” she said, “we never came across it, but the story is that Dr. Kettlestrings treated a taxi driver who lost his eye in a car crash, and the doctor kept the eye in a jar of formaldehyde to scare the children.”
Like many city dwellers, the Cozzens bought their Oak Park home when their son was born, and they needed more space than their city apartment afforded. Mary grew up in Oak Park and Tim spent his last year of high school at OPRF when his family moved to the village, but Oak Park was not the only place they looked for their new home.
Notes Tim, “We looked at houses all over but kept coming back to Oak Park. It’s a pretty special place. Once you turn south of North Avenue and see all these old houses with green lawns, it’s hard to think of anywhere else.”
Mary remembers her father going house hunting with her and urging her to buy one that needed work in order to save money.
“He was always very game on the fixer-upper idea,” she recalled. When we first saw this house, I fell in love with it, but my dad thought it was too much of a fixer. The good news — and the bad news — was that most of the house was in original condition.”
Luckily, both Mary and Tim loved old houses and wanted to preserve as much as they could. They got in a bidding war with a developer who wanted to renovate the home, but they think they ended up with the house because they were a young family who didn’t want to gut the house and put a contemporary interior inside the old farmhouse exterior.
“It wasn’t like a museum,” Tim recalled, “but it was in such original condition that we didn’t think we could do more than remove wallpaper and paint at first. Over the past 18 years, we’ve slowly worked on the entire house.”
Mary chimed in, “It’s an old farmhouse, and we didn’t want to dishonor the history of the house. We’re just temporary custodians.”
Old and original paid off for the Cozzens when it comes to getting the most out of their house. Years ago, Mary noticed a woman who kept driving by the house taking photos. She introduced herself and discovered the woman was a location scout, looking for a spot to film commercials.
“Apparently, they were looking for something, to put it nicely, ‘rustic’ looking,” Mary said. “They liked the fact that our house looked sort of dilapidated. After that shoot, we got another a few months later, and it paid too well to turn things down. Since then, some years, we have nothing, and some years we have four or five commercials shot here. We also have let DePaul cinema-studies students use the house.”
Over the years, the house has appeared in ads for everything from cigarettes to Walmart, and the Cozzens have tried to find their house in the finished products. “Sometimes we don’t even see the final commercial,” she said, “or it never airs. The ones we have seen, it really could be shot anywhere. You can’t really tell it’s our house. They bring in their own furniture and cover up the windows.”
Tim added, “They do an amazing job with the props. It’s so weird to see stuff in the house that’s not ours. There will be family photos of strangers on the walls, or a child’s stuffed bunny. They make it look very real.”
The Cozzens consider themselves lucky to have Mary’s father’s house to escape to during filming, but the crews have been careful to keep their home pristine and get everything moved back where it belongs at the end of the day.
While the money has enabled the couple to do necessary repairs to the structure of the home, the Cozzens won’t be touching the original wainscot or period-style kitchen any time soon.
“We love this house,” Tim said. “When you’re looking for a house, you have a fantasy wish list. We got almost everything we wanted: a wrap-around porch, a fireplace, and big trees in the backyard.”
Not to mention a healthy dose of heritage.