On Sept. 3, 2014 a three-alarm fire ravaged the Iowa Terrace apartment building at the corner of Iowa and Humphrey in Oak Park. The fire began in the house next door, which was being rehabbed, and quickly spread to the apartment building, causing severe damage to the roof. Resulting smoke and water damage rendered the 15-unit building uninhabitable.

Maria Saldana, executive director of the Oak Park Residence Corporation (ResCorp), which owns the building, says it was the first major fire at one of the ResCorp’s buildings. 

“The tenants all had to be evacuated that night,” she recalled. “The Red Cross helped out because there was very little time for the residents to go in and save items. One thing I learned was the importance of having renters’ insurance.”

After a year and a half of restoration work, the building is ready for occupancy again, and Saldana believes the long-term effort resulted in a much-improved place for renters to call home.

The Oak Park Residence Corporation was established as a not-for-profit organization in 1966 to prevent blight in Oak Park’s apartment buildings and to promote the development of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income residents of the village. ResCorp currently manages 22 buildings and is run by a seven-person volunteer board tasked with the mission of providing affordable housing while maintaining vintage apartment buildings in the village.

The board played an integral role in reshaping the building through the necessary repairs and rehabilitation.

Exterior rehab

The red tile roof of the building sustained significant damage in the fire. Saldana said the roof had to be taken care of immediately to secure the building and prevent any further damage from winter weather. Wayne Pierce, president of the ResCorp board, recalled how active the board was during the restoration.

“Most of our buildings are vintage,” Pierce said. “With the tiled roof and the brick exterior, it was very important to make the building look as it did before the fire. It’s really a fantastic building. We tuckpointed and added all new windows as well.”

Once the exterior was shored up, work turned to the interior units, which suffered damage from smoke and the water sprayed by 65 firemen to put out the flames.

Interior upgrades

Victor Ortiz, director of property management for ResCorp, began his job just a few weeks after the fire. He said it was important to everyone to maintain the building’s vintage charm.

“The idea was to keep the vintage look outside and inside. The vintage lighting in the stairwells ties into that, as do the hardwood floors and stained glass windows.”

Adrian Cho, of Chicago’s Real Restoration Group Inc., contractor for the interior rehab efforts, noted that the board took pains to re-create apartments that exceeded the norm for apartments in the area.

“All of the fixtures are high end. We used Grohe and Kohler fixtures and quartz countertops. In the kitchens, there are soft-close cabinets and drawers and under-cabinet lighting. [We installed] premium Anderson windows. They really took the extra effort. This is the first time I’ve put these kind of fixtures in a rental.”

Cho also touted the efforts to minimize sound between units. He installed an extra layer of cork beneath the flooring to prevent noise traveling to units below and added insulation to the walls to minimize noise between units.

Saldana said ResCorp took into consideration what people look for in homes as they made smart upgrades to each of the units.

“One of the things the board pushed us to do,” she said, “was put individual washers and dryers in each unit. We also got rid of the building boiler and installed individual heating and cooling for each unit.”

Through grants from Nicor and ComEd, Ortiz noted, there are programmable thermostats in the units and energy-efficient lighting in the building’s basement.

Different tiers of the three-story building have different floor plans, with some models offering combined living and dining rooms and others offering two separate rooms for living and dining. Closets were enlarged to provide more storage than is typical in vintage rentals, and 11 parking spaces are available at the rear of the building. One of the great original benefits of the building wasn’t altered by the fire: east-facing units boast a spectacular view from the porches looking toward downtown Chicago.

Looking ahead

The building’s residents at the time of the fire have moved on to other homes — with the help of the Residence Corporation — and Ortiz said all of the units should be rented within 30 days of available occupancy, scheduled for the end of March.

Saldana said the building continues to reflect the ResCorp mission.

“The Oak Park Residence Corporation just turned 50 this year. We were one of those efforts in the ’60s that Oak Parkers took upon themselves to keep what was happening across the street in Austin from happening here. We were created to acquire buildings that were in danger of being abandoned or blighted.

“People talk about the diversity of Oak Park, and we really work to achieve that. We’ve always had a good partnership with the village.”

Pierce noted that those efforts continue in the management of the Residence Corporation’s buildings and in its efforts to provide affordable and Section 8 housing. 

“We’re very excited about the future in Oak Park,” he said.

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