When David Burns was growing up in England, his family lived in a 500-year-old house. Over on this side of the pond, he found that housing stock was not quite so historic, but he and his wife, Marihelen, still wanted something with a bit of age that they could fix up for their family.

He recalls that they started their home search in Oak Park, but ended up purchasing 146 Keystone Ave. in River Forest.

“Thirty-eight years ago, my wife and I made offers on eight houses in Oak Park,” he says. “We wanted an old Victorian that was worth restoring. We came to look at this house again, even though it was too big and too expensive. We ended up with a seven-bedroom house, and we had only one child.”

Thinking he could work on the 1886 house himself on breaks from his day job as a consultant, Burns found it took twice as long and cost twice as much to restore the home and bring it up to modern standards as they had anticipated. As their family grew to include two more children, the house became a labor of love that was more than just a restoration project.

Construction on the house began in July 1886 for Charles Marble and his wife, who raised nine children there. A printer, Marble copyrighted the Nabisco trademark. The home was built before there was city-provided water, so there was a well in the backyard, and a hand pump to pump water to the third floor. The Burnses restored the pump to working condition. 

The third family to live in the home, the Ryans, raised five children in the home. In 1932, Mr. Ryan was surprised by a visit from Herbert Hoover’s men after they found car abandoned by gangster Baby Face Nelson. A priest’s calling card was found in the back seat of the car, and that priest was visiting Mr. Ryan; both men had been childhood friends of Nelson.

The fourth owners, the O’Leary family, raised nine children in the home from 1946 to 1979. Son John raised a boa constrictor in the basement, and the family paved over the yard to accommodate space for eight cars.

Diamond in the rough

When the Burns family bought the house in 1979, David worked on restoring the exterior of the home. The aluminum siding was removed, and the clapboard siding restored. 

The front porch, which had been altered over time, was rebuilt and an original bay window was uncovered. Throughout the process, care was taken to match the home’s original character. 

Burns used his basement workshop to create replacement ornamental trim for the home. The chimneys above the roof were replaced to match the originals and lined so that the fireplaces could be used.

At some point in time — Burns believes the 1920s — a rear, open porch was enclosed, leaving only one rear window on the first floor that overlooked the back yard. That window was in the pantry, so the entire rear of the house was blocked off from the yard. 

When the Burnses renovated their kitchen, they moved it and installed two windows and also added a sunroom over an enlarged basement well. They surrounded the sunroom walls with hand-constructed windows made of 130-year-old wavy glass.

The Burns family also replaced a garage with a coach house, which mirrors the style of the home and replaced the asphalt driveway with a brick-paved driveway.

David Burns jokes that the exterior took so much time and effort that he had to wait until his retirement to get to work on the interior of the home. While he made sure to meticulously restore original features such as doors, windows and plaster, David says he and Marihelen were conscious of the fact that people live differently today than they did when servants were cooking in the small, dark kitchen.

They opened up the kitchen, removing the butler’s pantry and turning the original food pantry into a mudroom. The new kitchen space is flooded with light through new windows and opens to a family room and breakfast room. 

Noting that a Victorian house would have had a big kitchen table, they wanted to create more storage space, but didn’t want an island. They created a storage piece in the center of the room using 130-year-old studs from the house as a table top, and adding power outlets and storage into the piece.

“It’s not an island, it’s a table,” Marihelen says, firmly.

On the second floor, they re-arranged space to create more bathrooms. A maid’s bedroom was turned into the master bathroom and features a large shower and double vanity. 

Another hall bathroom was expanded and renovated in a modern Victorian style, with a six-foot bathtub, heated towel rack and stained glass details. A second-floor linen closet became a laundry room.

David Burns and his father reconfigured the stairs to the third floor and created more livable space, including a fifth bedroom and another full bathroom. During the process of interior renovations, all the home’s mechanicals were replaced, including electric and plumbing systems. Air-conditioning was added, and the home now has three-zones of heating and cooling.

While the upstairs might retain such classic features as pocket doors and stained glass, the basement is an unexpected find. The couple finished it in a steam punk style, tuck-pointing the stone walls and leaving them exposed. 

The open space includes a bar with a copper counter and sink, a wine cellar, cement-swirled flooring and exposed rafters in the ceiling. They like the space so much that they hosted their daughter’s rehearsal dinner in the basement. 

David jokes that their youngest daughter was born the day they started work on the interior of the house, and they wrapped up work in time to host her wedding reception in the home. 

For David and Marihelen, hosting that event and winning a Historic Preservation award from River Forest capped off a lifetime in the house. With all of their children grown and their renovations at a stopping point, they hope another family will move in and love the house as much as they have. 

They have listed the house with realtor Laura Maychruk of Gullo & Associates for $1,325,000.

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