On Sunday, May 6 the Oak Park River Forest Historical Society holds its 15th annual housewalk, the Tales our Houses Tell. This year, the stories focus on a neighborhood in north Oak Park developed during the 1920s and 1930s. This pocket of Oak Park is new to the historical society’s walk, and members are excited about the opportunity to explore the new neighborhood.
“We discovered this great group of houses kind of by accident when some of our members and [historical society director] Frank Lipo suggested that we look here because this area hasn’t been done by us,” said Mary Boyaris, chairwoman of the walk. “We have six different houses in six very different styles. All of them were built in the 1920s and all have a Scandinavian connection.”
Historical Society member Kurt Etchingham researched three of this year’s homes, two in the 900 block of Fair Oaks Avenue and one in the 1200 block of North Elmwood Avenue. He remarks that the housing development in this part of Oak Park represents a booming period in the village.
“The houses reflect the incredibly rapid growth of north west Oak Park in the 1920s,” Etchingham said. “There was an actual farm in this area until 1922. There was a huge population boom, with the population increasing roughly 50 percent in 10 years. More people lived in Oak Park in the 1930s than live here today.”
In 1920, the 900 block of Fair Oaks Avenue had just two homes, but by 1926 the block was full.
Etchingham says that many of the homes were developed by Carl Gundersen, a developer from Norway. Also active in the area was architect George (formerly Gustav) Pearson who designed over 200 homes in Oak Park during this period and licensed the designs and plans for use, creating many houses with look-alikes on other blocks.
One of the Fair Oaks homes researched by Etchingham has interesting connections to Chicago corporations. The first owners of the home were Horace and Julia Wright, who moved to the area from Tennessee when Horace took a job at the Chicago Flexible Shaft company, which produced equipment for shearing sheep.
After a 10-year stint in Australia, Horace was named president of the company in 1935. He changed the name and direction of the company and created Sunbeam Appliance Company, which became one of the major manufacturers of home appliances in the world.
The second owner of the home, Adolph Pifko was an engineer for the Campbell Soup Company plant in Chicago and later became vice president of the plant. Later owners included a superintendent of Oak Park and River Forest High School and the dean of the Loyola University Law School.
Etchingham pointed out the variety of styles of homes that were built in the 1920s in this area — from arts and crafts, to Colonial revival to bungalows with Italian Renaissance details. He noted that the architects and developers worked in a large array of styles. “Most of the architects were designing affordable, middle- to upper middle-class homes of really nice quality,” Etchingham said. “They’re not mansions, but they’re livable.”
Historical society researcher Peggy Sinko has researched previous walks but was unfamiliar with the history of this area of Oak Park.
“This is a part of town I don’t know a lot about, but every year, I find out great stories and interesting tidbits that I didn’t know before,” Sinko said.
Like Etchingham, she found a lot of her research pointed to a rapid, prosperous population growth in the area in the 1920s.
“A 1927 Oak Leaves article referring to the development of the areas stated that only four years earlier, the site was almost a ‘howling wilderness,'” said Sinko. “What we’re seeing in this neighborhood is really a building of homes for upper middle-class families. They were paving streets, putting in water mains and building garages, because the assumption was that you needed an automobile.”
All three of the houses Sinko researched were designed by the same architect, Charles Kristen. However, they represent three very different styles. The time period between world wars saw a real interest in revival styles, and Sinko noted that’s reflected in the neighborhood and throughout the country.
“You see Tudors, English cottages, Norman, Italian and Colonial revival,” Sinko said. “People are also looking to publications like the Ladies Home Journal for design inspiration.”
One of Sinko’s houses in the 1000 block of Fair Oaks Avenue was designed in the Norman Romanesque style and is unique for the battlement-style turret at the front of the home. She says the interior of the home has retained much of the original wrought-iron work and some original light fixtures, which really make its character pop.
A home in the 1100 block of North Elmwood Avenue is one of the more significant estate homes in the neighborhood and comes with an interesting past. Built at the cost of $65,000 for W.R. James, who was involved in a political scandal involving the Chicago parks system, the home is in the Italian Revival style.
From the 1930s through the 1960s subsequent owners brought in interesting ties to religious institutions. Dr. Lewis Moorehead, a prominent Roman Catholic, was dean of the Loyola Medical School and physician to Cardinals Mundelein and Stritch.
The next family, the Domchins, were very active with the West Suburban Temple congregation, and during the 1960s the home belonged to the St. Nicholas Diocese of the Ukrainian Catholic Church and was home to Bishop Gabro.
Boyaris notes that the ability to share new homes and new stories every year is dependent upon the enthusiasm of the participating homeowners.
“We’ve been finding that we knock on doors and people almost always say yes,” she said. “It’s so much fun to meet them and get to know the stories of their homes.”