Brian and Tanya Taylor are no strangers to these pages. Their story first appeared in the WJ Homes section in 2005, when they won a Historic Preservation Award from the village for their work restoring their home on Erie Avenue. Now the Taylors can add to their trophy case with a recent win in a contest sponsored by This Old House Magazine. The magazine’s annual remodel issue recognizes readers who have shed blood, sweat, tears and, often, years to rehabilitate historic homes. The Taylors won in the Curb Appeal category and couldn’t be more pleased that their years of effort have paid off.

One of Oak Park’s oldest?

The Italianate style home dates to 1867, making it a contender for the elusive title of oldest home in Oak Park (the third we have featured in the past year). It was built for Frank Peeples who owned a paint and wallpaper store in Oak Park. The Taylors researched the home’s history through the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest, and learned a bit about their home’s unique setting and history. 

“My understanding,” Brian said, “is that the home was originally on Forest Avenue and got moved. Mr. Peeples bought the coach house from a larger home on Forest and moved it over here.”

Tanya adds that Peeples’ three sons also lived nearby. “One was an artist who painted Grant’s portrait before he became president. He had a painting studio on the side of the house. When we began our renovation project, we found some old wallpaper, milk bottles, a newspaper dating to the late 1800s, a plaster face and a nameplate for Frank Peeples.”

In the rafters of a bathroom, Brian also discovered a U.S. flag with 38 stars, now hanging in his office.

Once-in-a-lifetime renovation

The Taylors did not set out to buy a historic house. They compromised on Oak Park when they got married, notes Tanya. 

“He lived in the city, and I lived farther out in the suburbs. He wanted something urban, and I wanted a house with some grass, so we met in the middle in Oak Park. It’s close to the city, has great schools, and is great for families.” 

In 1999 while house hunting, they stumbled upon the house. What it lacked in style, it made up for in location. The house and the accompanying coach house in the rear had been rental properties for years and left a lot to be desired, but they were within walking distance of downtown Oak Park, schools and the train.

“We knew we were going to renovate,” Tanya said, “and as an architect, Brian led the renovation. I did not know what we were taking on.” “We were younger then,” Brian said. “I’d never do it again now.”

Brian, who works from his Chicago-based studio, Taylor & Associates, oversaw the home’s long renovation. As the project began, the couple lived in an apartment on Lake Street, but they soon decided to move into the house. He set up an office in the home, and Tanya began to question their decision to buy the house in the first place. 

“Two years into the renovation,” she said, “I was pregnant with our daughter, and we didn’t have a complete bathroom or a complete kitchen. The upstairs bathroom had a tub, the downstairs bathroom had a sink, and the third bathroom had a toilet. At points, when we rebuilt the staircase, we had no stairs to the second floor, just a 16-foot ladder.”

The couple took road trips to Indiana to pick out stair rails and to Ohio to choose kitchen cabinets. Brian said they took their time to do things right. 

“I’m not sure how long it all took, but I know our daughter was talking, maybe she was 3 or 4, when I finally finished the stairs because she was able to tell Tanya that I’d finished.”

Much of the significant work on the home is invisible to the casual visitor. When they purchased the home, there was no real basement, just a dirt floor that ended about a foot beneath the rafters of the first floor. They dug out the floor and created a sound foundation, replacing the boulders and tree trunks that once supported the house. All-new HVAC and electrical systems, as well as a good deal of new plumbing, make the home livable for another century. 

Incidental exterior

The award-winning exterior of the home was a project the Taylors didn’t originally anticipate tackling, said Brian. 

“The siding wasn’t even on our radar. I found the original siding by accident when we uncovered an interior wall and I found some grooves under the plaster. I do mostly commercial architecture, so I hadn’t seen anything like this before. Outside, I again found boards with these grooves under the aluminum siding, so I pulled out my old textbooks and found references to this wood siding made to look like stone.”

The wood quoins that resembled stone were not common in the area but were commonly used on Italianate homes of this period. Brian decided they should take the house back to the original siding, not knowing that he would be doing the lion’s share of the work.

“I took a piece to a mill shop and found it was very expensive to replicate. Then, I went to a tool shop, and the guy there told me it was something I could make if I had the right tools. So, he showed me some big, massive tools, which, of course, I bought. I needed a radial arm saw, a router and a router table. I set up shop in the dining room and in the coach house, and bought a lot of cedar boards. I made siding on the weekends and in the evenings, whenever I wasn’t working at my job. It was well worth it. I’d do that part again.”

Tanya suspects her husband just wanted an excuse to purchase power tools, but she’s proud of the results. A lover of contests, her original hope was to win enough in the This Old House contest to allow her to repaint some of the rooms. 

“I entered at the last hour of the last day of the contest,” she recalled, “and I only had time to upload some of the photos of the house, so I went with the exterior because I thought it was so unique. I couldn’t believe it when I found out we won. My goal in entering was to use the prize money to paint the inside of the house, but secretly, I wanted my husband to get the recognition for all the work he did.”

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