Good things come to those who wait. The old adage holds true for Oak Park homeowners Adrian and Jeff Fisher, who have lived in their Home Avenue house since 1986. The couple raised their children in the home and waited until they were grown to tackle the rehabilitation work they had longed to take on.
According to Adrian, “We raised our children here, paid for college, paid off the house, and then decide to do some work on the house.”
Their patience paid off. With a new kitchen and a new exterior remodel that recently earned them a Historic Preservation Award, they are pleased that their just-right-sized home is ready for the next chapter in their lives.
Subtracting, not adding
When the Fishers purchased the home, they were prepared to take on a house that needed some work.
“We really love old houses and had rehabbed a three-flat in Wicker Park before moving here. We always had in mind that we would do the same here,” said Adrian.
When they first saw the house, the exterior bore little resemblance to the classic Gunderson look of many of the homes in this Gunderson Historic District south of I-290. The home dates to 1905, and sometime around 1915, early owners added a sleeping porch to the second floor over the front porch. In the 1950s, the original sleeping porch windows were replaced, and the home was re-sided with asphalt siding over the original clapboard.
Jeff recalled that the previous owners of the home had 10 children, and when he and Adrian first saw the house, there were beds lined up in rows in the sleeping porch. The Fishers didn’t need quite as much sleeping space for their smaller family, but they did wonder if it made sense to remove the porch, making their house smaller.
Adrian noted that when most people renovate an older home, they tend to add square footage, not subtract. Even though the sleeping porch was old enough to be architecturally interesting, she and Jeff decided they didn’t need more space. For Adrian, a sustainability consultant, living in a right-sized house has always been a goal. With their children out of the house, the couple also realized that a right-sized home would allow them to age in the home they loved without needing to downsize.
The Fishers didn’t have to look far to find someone to help them with their renovation goals. They turned to neighbor and architect Chris Goode of Architecture and Conservation to help them with a whole-house plan. They said that Goode was well-prepared to rehab their home within the original footprint and with sensitivity to the original structure.
In 2013, they started with a kitchen remodel. A very small kitchen gained a lot of space with some creativity on the part of Goode and Loop Construction.
Goode said of the Fishers’ house, “They have an old Gunderson. It hadn’t been changed much inside, and the kitchens in those Gundersons are pretty meager. They asked me how to get more space. What we did was grab some space from the back porch and the pantry. It was interesting to try to figure out how to make something not very big bigger and have it fit the house.”
Goode’s plans called for a joist to cantilever off the side of the house, which created a few extra feet of space without the need for a new foundation. He also reoriented the approach to the powder room to create an eat-in space in the kitchen.
A few years later, the Fishers again called on Goode — this time with the help of McShane Hibbits Construction — to restore the exterior of their home. Goode said this project didn’t require quite as much ingenuity as creating a larger kitchen.
“To be honest, it wasn’t that difficult to figure out what to do,” he noted, “just take off the sleeping porch. Basically, the houses around us told us what to do as we rebuilt the porch.”
In order to create the most historically accurate porch they could, the Fishers and Goode walked their neighborhood, examining the porches of other Gunderson houses. Very few had original porches, due to the propensity of wood to rot after more than 100 years, but they found one house that appeared to have its original porch, and they did their best to copy the posts.
When they removed the asphalt siding, they were relieved to find much of the original clapboard was salvageable. They were happy to discover original wood shingles in the triangle at the top of the house and some traces of original paint colors. They chose new shades of yellow with green trim to reflect the original colors of the home.
The Fishers say the Village Historic Preservation Commission was instrumental in helping them get the project approved and also helped them realize significant tax savings. On receiving the green light from the commission, Adrian said, “It was easy to get approval because we respected the building and were trying to make it what it originally was.”
One of the perks of restoring the home was that the project qualified the Fishers for a property tax assessment freeze. As residents of a historic district, the Fishers qualified for an eight-year assessment freeze for approved work that represented at least 25 percent of the home’s assessed value.
She and Jeff hope that winning a Historic Preservation Award will inspire others. “My hope is that people will see what we did and realize they don’t have to do beige vinyl siding. A lot of current renovations are not being done sensitively to old architecture.”
For the Fishers, the project was worthwhile on a personal and community level. For Adrian, from a sustainability standpoint, it made more sense environmentally to rehab an older home than to build new — plus the added bonus of loving the newly-rehabbed home.
“I get happy every time I walk into the house.”