In Oak Park and River Forest, we like our housewalks. Whether raising money for the Oak Park-River Forest Historical Society, the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, or the Infant Welfare Society, in any given season, there’s an opportunity to put booties on over your shoes to get an up-close, personal glimpse of interesting neighborhood homes.
For years, one of those nonprofits, the Pleasant Home Foundation, has held a fall housewalk to raise funds in support of its mission. This fall is no exception: the Pleasant Home Foundation’s Fall House Tour takes place on Saturday, Oct. 4.
What’s different about this year’s walk is the overriding theme. In the past, Prairie-style homes have been highlighted numerous times, with bungalows and Victorians getting their fair share of the spotlight. This year, the walk focuses on 20th-century Modernist Architecture, featuring five homes with a distinctly modernist vision.
According to Pleasant Home Foundation Executive Director Heidi Ruehle-May, this year’s theme was an easy decision for the foundation’s board. “Board President Carol Yetken is a landscape architect and loves the mid-century modern style,” Ruehle-May said, “so she suggested the idea. Program Committee board Chair and architect Doug Gilbert was also enthusiastic about the idea, as was the foundation’s Program Committee. We reached out to some homeowners in River Forest and once they said yes, we went with the theme.”
Those River Forest homeowners, Pat and Sue Allen, who have been living in their Modernist house for over 20 years, are quick to point out that while some may label it mid-century modern, its style is, in fact, late International, a style epitomized by Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. According to research conducted by the foundation’s Pamela Reynolds, the International style was founded by Le Corbusier, Oud and Reirveld, Gropius, and van der Rohe between the two world wars. Their stated mission was to create an international architecture, independent of specific materials, sites or cultural traditions. Christened with the name “International” during a 1932 exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, the movement was said to emphasize three aesthetic qualities: volume over mass; regularity over symmetry; and dependence on intrinsic elegance of materials over applied decoration.
The Allens’ home, formally known as the Abe A. Brown House, was designed by architect Albert Belrose in 1956 and embodies many of the ideals of the International style. Born of Jewish immigrant parents and raised in the Austin neighborhood, Belrose received his master’s degree in architecture at Harvard when Gropius served as the school’s dean. The Allens had the opportunity to meet with Belrose before his death in 2012, and while he said he was influenced by van der Rohe and Gropius, he proudly declared that his work was his own style.
Abe A. Brown House
Belrose worked for the architectural firm Perkins and Will before leaving to pursue his own clients and designs in the early 1950s. Brown may have been only his second residential client. Brown, like Belrose, was also the son of Jewish immigrants and like Belrose, had risen higher than his parents’ humble origins to become the well-to-do owner of a laundry business. He and his wife Anne purchased two lots in River Forest at Ashland and Greenfield, and to the consternation of the neighbors, set out to build a modern house there.
The home, while quite unique in its design, does show the influence of earlier area architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the use of space and the lot. A lower-ceilinged entry way leads to a more expansive open-plan living and dining room combination. Clerestory windows around the perimeter of the room provide warm exposure during the colder months and block hotter sun in the summer. Sliding glass doors on either side of the space allow access to two outdoor patios, which brings the outdoors in during all seasons.
Ruehle-May notes, “The beams and clerestory windows are so quintessential from the 1950’s era, yet they modernize what Frank Lloyd Wright was trying to do.”
Belrose acted as both general contractor and landscape architect for the home. Influenced by the tree growing in the center of Wright’s Isabel Roberts House, Belrose planned to have trees growing through the lattice work ceiling on the sides of the Brown home. One of the trees remains growing through the lattice today.
The Allens are only the second family to own the home and aimed to be good stewards of the home’s original features. In both bathrooms, the original tile, waterfall sinks and Crane fixtures have been retained. Belrose’s original wood paneling, cedar closets, and built-in bookshelves also remain throughout the home.
The Browns hired Belrose to remodel their kitchen, and the Allens modernized that redo while staying close to the original plan. Sue said they hired architect Ann Clark because they knew she would be sympathetic to the home’s design. “We did not want to remove the original St. Charles metal cabinets, so we had them electro-statically painted. We found new appliances that fit in the same spots where the original appliances stood. I normally don’t like metal cabinets, but when this was built, it was state of the art. These same cabinets are in Fallingwater.”
During the remodel, the Allens installed cork flooring because it was period-appropriate and Clark designed a built-in desk and credenza in the eat-in area that complement the home’s original woodwork.