If you’ve lived in the area long enough, chances are, you’ve noticed the home at 344 Keystone Ave. in River Forest. 

Not only is it one of the few Italianate villa-style homes in the River Forest, but its soaring four-story tower makes it hard to miss. Estimated to have been built in 1883, the home has housed only four families. 

Current owners John and Maureen Heakin have faithfully restored the home for the past 37 years. While the task might have seemed monumental to some, spreading the work over time, the Heakins have managed to save the house from the wrecking ball.

Early Chicago connections

First owner William F. Blocki was a Polish immigrant, who along with his partner Edwin O. Gale owned and operated the Gale Blocki Pharmacy in the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago. 

Together, the two purchased acres of land in River Forest and named it the Gale Blocki Subdivision. Although the Heakins cannot substantiate the claim, they are told that the home’s English oak pier mirror, bench and stair rail came from the Palmer House. 

“The hotel was renovated after the 1871 Chicago fire, and we’ve been told these were taken out before that time and put in storage,” said John Heakin.

Blocki and his family of seven lived in the home until 1895, when they sold the house to the Ryan family, who occupied the house for more than 70 years. 

“Two of the Ryan daughters were unmarried, and they lived at home and operated a nursery school inside the house from 1935 to 1965,” John said. “It was called ‘Ryan’s Playground,’ and generations of River Forest residents went to nursery school here. When we first moved in, people rang the bell to come in and look at their old school.”

During the Ryans’ tenure, the house fell into disrepair, and the sisters lost their license to operate the school due to building code violations. The Ryans sold the house in 1965 to the Felix family. Dr. Robert Felix and his wife, Jean, raised five children in the house. The two added a pool house with an indoor pool to the property for Jean to use for physical therapy. When they divorced, with bankruptcy looming, they put the house on the market in 1977.

No interested buyers stepped in to by the house. Maureen Heakin recalls it had been abandoned for three years when she and John first saw it. 

“There was trash knee-deep on all three floors,” John said. “A boiler had failed, and they didn’t have money to fix it. At the time, there was a rumor that a group of investors was looking to buy it and tear it down, since we’re on almost three lots.”

The Heakins had been looking for a Victorian home to purchase for two years, but had not had any luck. 

“All we could afford was a fixer,” John said. “It’s funny that a young couple without a lot of money ended up with one of the grandest homes in the village.”

Renovation minded

As they settled into the house, the Heakins tackled remodeling projects one at a time. They were able to salvage and repair the original plaster moldings and ceiling medallions, uncovered the original pocket doors and repaired, replaced and refinished hardwood floors.

They also installed new screen doors using the pattern of the brackets on the roof of the house. While keeping true to the history of the home, they also upgraded the mechanical systems and added insulation and air conditioning, making the home more comfortable and weather-ready.

Their restoration did not end on the inside of the house. The Heakins took extensive steps to rehabilitate the exterior of the seven-bedroom, three-bathroom house as well. They rebuilt the rear porch to match the existing, original porches. The rebuilt the porch on the north side of the house, and also rebuilt the wrap-around porch in front. 

In 2013, they set their sights on the home’s brick exterior. Over the decades, the cream bricks had turned a dark charcoal color. The original buff color was revealed with chemical stripping, and more than 4,000 decaying bricks were meticulously replaced with a brick known as Milwaukee Cream. The project took more than 80 days and earned the home a River Forest Historic Preservation Award in 2014.

In 2014, they turned their attention to the pool house. They gutted the dilapidated pool and surrounding building, leaving only the exterior walls. They started from scratch to create a welcoming guest house, which features a full kitchen, full bathroom and fireplace.

All of the work has been a labor of love. The Heakins have delighted in the historic details. They maintained the original carriage entrance on the north side of the house, with the original heavy wooden doors. 

They framed mementos found during the restoration, including a piece of lion-patterned wall paper discovered behind the pier mirror and a ticket dated 1876 advertising musical entertainment at the home of Charles Marble, which they found in between pieces of woodwork in a closet.

The Heakins are ready to downsize, and have listed the home with Andy Gagliardo for $1,779,000. They hope the next owner will treasure the home as they have. The home has been featured on an HGTV retrospective on the Italianate villa style, and has been opened to the public on four housewalks, including the Infant Welfare Society Showcase House, Wright Plus, the Infant Welfare Society Holiday Housewalk and the Oak Park River Forest Historical Society walk.

In spite of all those accolades, its biggest draw may just be its most notable feature. On the third floor, a flight of stairs leads up to the fourth-story tower. 

“Every child who comes in here has to go to the top of the tower,” said John. “All you can see is the top of the trees.”

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