Driving through River Forest with its varied housing stock, one house stands out amid the collection of brick Buurma Brothers, Prairie-style and mid-century houses: 1135 Ashland looks like it would be more at home in the French countryside than in the heart of the Midwest. With a rounded tower, shake-shingle roof and French pebble semi-circular driveway, the home evokes a different place and time.

For Gloria Coco and Tom Nolan, the French charm drew them in the moment they first drove by the house. Coco recalls she was not sure that moving to the suburbs was for her. But when she and Nolan took a driving tour of River Forest and saw the house, she was immediately smitten by the exterior of the home. They soon put in an offer and have lived in the house since 1998.

Ready to downsize from the 4,500-square-foot home, they have listed it for sale with Elissa Palermo of Re/Max in the Village for $1.5 million, and Coco hopes the next owner will fall in love with the home’s charm just as they did.

Architectural interest

The European charm of the structure reflects the signature style of the home’s architect, Jerome Cerny, who was born in Chicago in 1901 and studied at the School of the Art Institute, the Armour Institute and Yale University. Early in his career, he worked for architects Benjamin Marshall and David Adler. Wednesday Journal columnist Garret Eakin, who restored one of Cerny’s homes in Lake Forest, noted that Adler’s influence is evident in much of Cerny’s work.

“Cerny worked for David Adler for some time,” Eakin said. “He got a lot of his trademark details from him, like the compass in the middle of a turret was always set to true north, something that Adler used to do.”

In contrast to Adler, he added, who was designing extensive estates composed of 20-30 buildings, Cerny did not design for the ultra-rich but for well-to-do people who had aspirations of reaching that higher economic strata.

Cerny travelled to the Normandy region of France where he sketched some of the rambling farmhouses of the area, and many of those details made their way into the country French-style homes he designed in River Forest. While a handful of his homes dot the western suburbs, he was prolific in designing homes on Chicago’s North Shore. After the Depression, his practice expanded into the 1950s and ’60s when his designs began to appear in national publications such as House and Garden and Town and Country.

Cerny died in 1970, leaving his firm to a longtime employee. The firm still operates in Lake Forest today with a focus on Cerny’s traditional designs.

Preservation-minded

In River Forest, Coco and her husband found little need to change the style of their home and preserved much of the 1942 home’s original details, creating a living testament to days gone by. Throughout the home, from the sconce at the entry of the home to the dining room chandelier to doorknobs and cabinet hardware, many of the metal accents sport a star motif.

The original parquet floors, three fireplaces and curved walls and bay windows also speak to Cerny’s design decisions. The living spaces on the first floor are rife with details not found in homes today. Above the living room fireplace, drawers in the wall were likely used to store or warm blankets. Murals on the curved walls at the entrance of the room are likely original to the house. 

Noting that it would be expensive to build such a customized home today, Coco points out the curved walls of the powder room and coat closet, which are located on the first floor of the turret. In the library, intricately designed built-ins flank the wood-burning fireplace, and bookshelves are backed with a wallpaper of the maps of the world.

Palermo remarks, “A lot of Cerny’s homes have been compromised with updates. This house has been maintained so well that you can just move in. It has 100 percent of the original finishes.”

Upstairs, Coco and Nolan updated the house while keeping to Cerny’s vision. Coco recalls their architect Bob French told them, “You have a very special home. You have to preserve the architectural integrity of the house.”

As in other rooms of the home, in the master bedroom they restored and repaired the original windows. They modernized the master bathroom but kept the original faucets. The bedroom at the top of the turret has its original wood paneling and light fixture with star cut-outs. Both the second and third bedrooms boast large closets as well as their own private bathrooms.

Cerny created another wing on the second floor, which can be closed off from the rest of the house. Coco and Nolan used the space as offices, and it includes two more large rooms and a large closet as well as picturesque views of the manicured lawn.

In the finished basement, a family room includes a third fireplace and a wet bar. Also on this level are several large storage rooms, one of which houses the hooks used to open the original windows in the home.

It looks like something out of the French countryside, and the backyard continues that theme. A screened porch opens to a brick patio and a fountain gurgles in the background. 

A wall of mature trees obscures any view of neighboring yards, creating a peaceful oasis in the western suburbs.

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