Cornerstone on Keystone: The Blocki House has been anchoring its corner of Keystone Avenue in River Forest since the 1880s. | Courtesy of the Historical Society of OP-RF

The Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest’s 12th annual housewalk takes place on Sunday, May 3, in River Forest. The walk spans over 125 years of architectural design in homes built from 1883 to 2005. Frank Lipo, executive director of the Historical Society, said that once they found the “bookends,” the rest of the homes filled right in.

“The 1883 Blocki House is such a great start,” Lipo said. It’s a landmark in town. Everyone knows it because it’s been in the village so long. Then we found the 2005 Contemporary house on Franklin, and the rest of the walk just fell into place. In the same day, people can get a sense of how housing has changed through different eras. Plus, it’s great to see how people decorate these homes from different eras for today’s lifestyles.”

Peggy Sinko, who conducts exhaustive research on the homes for the Historical Society, thinks the walk provides something different from other spring housewalks. 

“We don’t narrow the focus to one aspect, such as a particular architect or the kitchen. We approach it holistically. We are every bit as interested in the people who lived in the homes and how they fit into the landscape of the town. We look at the houses in terms of what houses are supposed to do. Each of this year’s homes, at the time they were built, were the height of modern style. They all continue to work and be livable today.”

Blocki House (and school)

The 1883 Blocki House commands attention on Keystone Avenue in River Forest. The grand Italianate Victorian has attracted attention from passersby for years. The house was vacant when the current owners purchased it, and they have dedicated several decades to restoring the home. The 11-foot ceilings, elaborate plaster ceiling medallions and pocket doors harken back to the day the home was built for William Blocki, owner of the drugstore chain Gale & Blocki. One of the stores was originally in the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago, and legend has it that a large ornate mirror in the home’s entry came from the hotel.

The John J. Ryan family, which included six children, were the second owners of the home. Four of the daughters and one son lived in the house as adults and operated a private kindergarten in the home from the 1930s to the 1960s. Sinko hopes one of the former students of the school might return to tour the home.

William Lally House

Chronologically, the next stop on the tour is the 1913 Lally House on Ashland Avenue, designed by architects Tallmadge and Watson. The firm also designed a 1925 addition to the home. Sinko noted that the research on this house provided interesting details. 

“We found a piece from the Oak Leaves describing what the Lallys were doing almost 100 years ago to the day of our housewalk,” she said. “On May 2, 1915, Mr. and Mrs. Lally hosted an old-fashioned picnic in the woods for 40 of their friends. It makes it fun to imagine what life was like then.”

241 Keystone Avenue

The third home, built in 1925, is a bit of an architectural mystery. Sinko said she was not able to find out much about Fred R. Washburn, the Oak Park architect who designed the home. “A lot of his prior work seems to be industrial buildings, such as factories and warehouses. This is the only home I’ve found for him so far.”

The first owners of the home were Max and Mary Ginsburg. Max was an immigrant from either Russia or Lithuania who came to America as a teenager and worked his way up the retail ladder. The large River Forest home was built at a cost of $18,000, quite a sum in those days, and the Ginsburgs also had a summer cottage in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, so Sinko calls his story a true up-by-the-bootstraps success.

Mid-Century style

The 1951 ranch-style home on Auvergne Place was designed by Martin Braun, an architect and developer who designed many homes in the western suburbs. Advertisements in the Chicago Tribune for his homes enticed owners to “live in tomorrow’s house,” and extolled amenities such as push-button living, rumpus rooms and radio-controlled garage doors.

The home’s first owner was a doctor at Oak Park Hospital. The current owners liked the modern style of the home and preserved such features as the grey and maroon tiles in the bathroom and primary colors on the stair rails. A new De Giulio-designed kitchen bridges the original design with modern convenience.

2005 Contemporary

The house at 312 Franklin has the distinction of being one of the first homes on the Historical Society’s housewalk to have a living architect. Designed in 2005 by Chicago architect Carlos Concepcion, the home resembles a large square block from the street. But Sinko says the vista changes as soon as you view the interior. 

“When you walk in the front door,” she noted, “your jaw just drops. The whole back of the house is glass. There’s a real California feel to the home with its open floor plan. It’s totally unexpected.”

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