Imagine if you can, owning an Oak Park lot occupying more than a standard block and paying only $19.61 in property taxes. Hard to even picture, isn’t it? Today, the property tax bills for the homes on the same block has a few more zeros at the end. 

Things have certainly changed in Cook County since 1875, when the Carter family owned a Victorian house and farm at the intersection of East and Chicago avenues. Plenty of things about the home have also changed since it was constructed in the 1870s, and the home, making it one of Oak Park’s oldest and offering an interesting perspective on the changing face of Oak Park real estate.

The village of Ridgeland

When the home was constructed, it was a part of the Village of Ridgeland. Michael L. Carter purchased the land for $3,000 from James Scoville. The original Carter family tax ledger survived and is in possession of the current owners, who are listing the home with Swati Saxena and Elizabeth Scott of Baird and Warner for $995,000. While documentation of the construction costs for the original house did not survive, it is safe to speculate that the original occupants of the Italianate-style home could no more fathom a million-dollar home price than they could today’s five-digit annual property taxes.

According to research conducted by Alma Koppedraijer of the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust when she researched the home for the Wright Plus housewalk in 2009, Carter was born in Nova Scotia and later settled in Boston where he became a master gardener and horticulturist. He moved west with his family, eventually settling in what is now Oak Park. Along with his sons and several laborers, he farmed the land surrounding his home, winning prizes for his beets, tomatoes, squash and muskmelons. Carter and his wife Catherine raised 10 children and were early parishioners of St. Luke Parish in River Forest. The home remained in the family until the death of daughter Mary in 1934.

Italianate to Greek Revival

The house on the 400 block of North East Avenue was designed in the Italianate style, popular in the Midwest from roughly 1850 to 1880. Early photographs of the home show a frame structure with a gabled roof. A porch spanned the first story of the home and wrapped around the side. Koppedraijer noted that there is no architect associated with the home’s plan, something that was not that unusual during a time of rapidly expanding cities and suburbs when many builders relied on pattern books to aid in the design of homes.

The home was put up for sale in 1934, and advertised in the Oak Leaves as a spacious five-bedroom house with an asking price of $12,500. The home did not sell until 1937, when it was purchased by the Petersen family, who quickly began to remodel it for the sum of $4,900. The Petersens’ alterations proved quite extensive. They changed the roof line from a front gable to a ridge-hipped roof. Trim was added and windows altered. The front porch was removed and a new entry was constructed. Pilasters were added to all corners of the house, giving a Greek Revival feel to the exterior.

Saxena said the home is quite unusual. “You go in, and there’s a square part of the house, and then a large rectangle on the back. It was originally designed this way, and we think the rear rectangle was a separate space used by farmhands.”

Sometime in the 1940s, she noted, rooms were rented out on the second floor, and a back staircase was installed for the renters. At the time, Mrs. Petersen was widow in need of extra income. She added a kitchen to the second floor, and it remained a two-family home until 1961. When the current owners purchased it in 2005, they began a renovation of the property.

Modern amenities

After they purchased the house, the owners removed the back staircase and reconfigured smaller rooms at the rear of the second floor to create a master suite. The 20- x 15-foot room features a sitting area and a luxurious private bathroom, complete with soaking tub, separate shower and dual, vintage-style sinks.

On the first floor, the owners were mindful of the home’s history and preserved the original crown molding, trim and window casings, as well as the home’s original oak floors. The kitchen was completely remodeled with a professional Lacanche range, custom island, slate flooring, and new French doors opening to a new porch.

In 1908, Sanborn maps indicate there were no homes south of the property on that block, but since that time, three neighboring homes have been constructed, which still allows a sizeable lot of 84 x 175 feet. 

The yard sports a patio tucked into the trees rather than rows of melons, and the old barn has been replaced with a three-car garage. 

But the essence of the original Carter farmhouse remains, ready for its next owner.

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