From 1888 to 2016, the Vilas Residence has been celebrated as a grand dame of Riverside. Recently it acquired one more accolade. The Queen Anne Victorian was recently awarded the grand prize in the annual Chicago’s Finest Painted Ladies & Her Court contest, sponsored by the Chicago Paint & Coatings Association. Current owners Dawne and Scott Totorella, who have lovingly restored the home they purchased in 1987, say the award and the satisfaction of maintaining their landmark home are well worth the effort.

History and architecture

The home was built in 1888 for Henry C. Vilas, the first of sixteen owners. Appropriately enough, Vilas owned a paint store in Chicago, and Dawne Totorella imagines he would have been pleased to know the house’s latest paint job earned an award. In 1993, the village of Riverside designated the Vilas Residence a Riverside Landmark.

At over 6,000 square feet, the three-story Victorian is representative of the Queen Anne-style of architecture. It has a steep, irregularly shaped roof with cross gables, center front gable and dormers. The porch runs the full width of the house and there are balustrades on the first and second floor. A Palladian window graces the front entrance, and a bay window adorns the west façade. The exterior is sided in clapboard with shingled dormers.

Totorella restoration

When Dawne and Scott Totorella purchased the home in 1987, they knew the house was a major restoration project. Dawne notes, “We found a photo of the original exterior of the home at the Riverside Historical Society and tried to recreate everything according to that.”

Her parents, Barney and Imo Barnewolt, both newly retired teachers, spent three summers restoring the house with their daughter. They were aided by Barney’s colleague, Tom Baker, a master carpenter, and Tom’s uncle, Bob Drobing. 

Totorella recalls working with her parents to retain and restore the home’s original style. 

“We chose the paint colors according to guidelines in Victorian Exterior Decoration – How to Paint Your 19th Century House Historically.” 

Many of the balusters on the front porch needed to be replaced, and the Totorellas used original pieces found under the porch as a template for the new balusters created by George Pagels Column Company. They also used historic photos to guide the recreation of the large columns on the front porch.

Ronbo’s to the restoration

After almost thirty years weathering the elements, Totorella knew her home was in need of a complete exterior touch up. She turned to Ron Feley of Ronbo’s Fine Painting Inc. for help with both the paint job and a lot of underlying prep work.

Originally operating out of the Oak Park house he grew up in on Ridgeland Avenue, Feley has been running his painting business in the area since 1991. He recalls going out to provide the estimate to Totorella during a February snowstorm. For him, an in-person estimate is the key to any job. 

“More and more people go to the internet and want to get pricing online,” Feley said. “It’s hard to do. You can’t get an idea of condition of the walls and previous paint job without being there. Square footage is not enough to go by.”

Feley calls the Vilas Residence the largest house he’s ever worked on and admits that providing an estimate in a snowstorm for a summer painting job meant he wasn’t able to get up on his ladders and inspect the fine details of the house’s 48-foot peaks, but he knew the home hadn’t been painted in almost 30 years, which told him to expect plenty of prep work.

Don Bloomer, Feley’s son-in-law, who now manages the painting jobs, says the prep work on the Vilas Residence was as extensive as the paint job itself. 

“First we power wash,” he noted, “and then we scrape off the old paint. On this house, we had a lot of carpentry work to do, too. Paint is a protector for the wood on the house, so when the paint is flaking away, the wood underneath is no longer protected.”

Bloomer said a team of up to 10 experienced painters worked 12-hour days, six days a week on the project. Prep work took approximately three weeks, and the paint job took three weeks as well. Youth is an advantage, he added, when it comes to the physically demanding work of prepping and painting a house. Ronbo’s maintains a stable of veteran painters but also trains college-aged painters, teaching the trade to a new generation.

Of the approximately 200 balusters on the porch, Totorella recalled, 60 had to be replaced. She again turned to Richard Pagels of the George Pagels Column Company. 

“He did a lot of research,” she said, “on how to best treat cedar balusters with a special top coat and primer to withstand the Chicago weather.”

Since the house was last done, painting technology has come a long way, and Totorella was happy to try improved paint products on her house. Feley noted that the historically accurate colors chosen in 1991 do not look the same a quarter-century later. 

“What was red had faded to lobster pink,” he said. “Paints have come far now where they don’t fade like they used to.”

Bloomer said Totorella went back to her original color scheme but changes in texture added a new look to the house. 

“We changed the sheens to make it look more elegant. Before, the whole house was flat, it needed to be dressed up a bit.”

Totorella is thrilled with the results and compliments the entire Ronbo team for their hard work. 

“The products may have changed,” she said, “but the process hasn’t changed in 30 years. It’s elbow grease that makes the difference.”

Others agreed that the facelift to the grand lady was award-worthy, and in October the house was awarded grand prize in the Chicago Painted Ladies & Her Court Contest, sponsored by Chicago Paint & Coatings Association. The winners were feted with a dinner at Maggiano’s, and Totorella and Ronbo’s Fine Paining Inc. received a plaque for the best use of color for a Victorian home painted by professionals.

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