When the economic recession hit, Oak Park, like the rest of the nation, felt the effects of a sluggish real estate market. Homes no longer sold like hotcakes, and price drops replaced price increases as the norm. Starter homes and condominiums were hit hard, and Oak Park’s unusually large supply of architecturally significant homes, normally a real estate boon, also lingered on the market. Several area Frank Lloyd Wright homes were listed for well over a year before finding buyers at reduced prices.
With a swiftly moving spring and summer season, however, hopes of a real estate turn-around are alive and well in the village, which takes more than a normal degree of pride in its housing stock.
The recent sale of one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “bootleg” homes in a relatively short amount of time also signals an upswing in the market for that local niche: homes designed by famous architects.
In the 1890s while employed by the architectural firm of Adler and Sullivan in Chicago, Wright designed three houses on Chicago Avenue in Oak Park. Louis Sullivan strictly prohibited independent design by his architects, so these homes became known as the “bootleg” houses (though they could also be called “moonlighting” houses).
In total, Wright is believed to have designed eight or nine bootleg houses while working for Adler and Sullivan, and it is thought that four of the homes still exist. When Sullivan discovered that Wright was moonlighting, he fired him, and Wright went on to found his own studio in his home in Oak Park, just steps away from the Chicago Avenue bootlegs.
After his marriage in 1891, prominent Oak Park citizen Thomas Gale purchased six lots on Oak Park Avenue from his father Edwin. He then commissioned Wright, his neighbor, to build the Thomas H. Gale House and then sold a lot to his brother Walter, for whom Wright designed the Walter Gale House. Thomas sold one of the homes early in the building process to attorney Robert P. Parker, whose name appears on Wright’s plans for the home.
Robert Parker House
Built in 1892, the Robert Parker House is very similar in style to the Thomas Gale House to its west. Both houses have pitched roofs and polygonal dormers, and both houses are usually classified as Queen Anne in style. Both houses are clad in clapboard, with overhanging eaves that would come to be a hallmark of Wright’s Prairie style. The interior of the homes are also similar. Each features a central fireplace on the first floor, and turrets that host half-wall window bands.
Marketing a Wright home
Baird and Warner real estate agent Steve Scheuring, who handled the listing of the house for the longtime owners, noted that his clients took on a historically sensitive remodel of the home.
“They really did a great job in the kitchen,” he said. “They had so much custom cabinetry installed, and they had a local metal worker who custom-matched the original hardware that Wright had designed. My client also loves vintage appliances. She put in an old, but high-end, professional refrigerator with a compressor that had to be located in the basement due to space constraints in the kitchen. She also had a vintage stove.”
Scheuring, who has marketed several historically significant homes in the past, including Wright designs and the Hemingway Boyhood Home (Iowa Street and Kenilworth Avenue), says there is something different about marketing a home with such significance.
“I get phone calls from all over the country about Wright houses,” he noted. “I had one interested buyer in town from Europe for business who hopped on the Green Line to see this house because he thought he might be moving to the area. Three weeks after it went under contract, he called because he wanted to come back with his wife to show her the house, but it was too late.”
In marketing this home, as with other significant listings, Scheuring believes in the power of great photography. “When it comes to marketing, photography is very important because everyone goes online to see a house for the first time. You have to think about how you can capture of the essence of Frank Lloyd Wright so people can see the Wright style on a computer.” A photographer himself, Scheuring lets a professional real estate photographer get the wide-angled room shots for his listings, but he takes the more detailed shots himself and even addresses how to capture the mood of a home through photography in his real estate blog.
Scheuring and his clients originally listed the home for $825,000 in March, dropped the price to $775,000, had the house under contract in early May and closed the transaction in July for $750,000.
“Pricing is really important,” he noted. “First, I price it as a regular, old Oak Park house. Then, I figure out how art sales are going. If they’re slumping, so are you. If they’re doing well, so are you because buying a Wright Home is really about buying a work of art. Once you take this into consideration, I find that it’s usually the case that your buyer is somebody who has a family and just wants to move to Oak Park. The Frank Lloyd Wright part is secondary.”
Scheuring added that the market time of 58 days was somewhat longer than it would have been for a non-Wright home on the market during the same hot spring period. “We had to wait a little longer. With this one, people need to come in and realize that it’s historic and that it will be the object of a lot of tourism.
The buyers who purchased the home are renting it out before moving to Oak Park to occupy the house. Scheuring said that while they weren’t quite ready to move in themselves, “they didn’t want the opportunity to buy a Wright for $750,000 pass them by. How many times do you get the chance to buy a Frank Lloyd Wright for that price these days?”
Scheuring thinks the resurgence in the real estate market as a whole also means resurgence in sales for significant homes, but he believes the house helped sell itself.
“It’s a beautiful house and was done very well,” he said. “The restoration my clients did was just amazing.”