Changing times call for creative thinking, and Oak Park estate homes have seen the pendulum of housing norms swing in recent years. 

When many of the large estate-section homes were built in the late 1800s to early 1900s, their occupants owned horses or early automobiles and often employed someone to take care of their methods of transportation. Carriage or coach houses were built behind some of the large estates to house the animals or vehicles and often included living spaces as well.

Frank Lipo, executive director of the Oak Park River Forest Historical Society, says it is not uncommon today to see some of these structures used as apartments or work-from-home offices, and notes that some of the larger structures have been separated from their original homes to become standalone single-family homes.

“It was not uncommon if you have a house built in the 1920s to get a shift with generations,” Lipo said. “I think part of that is a tax thing. Around here, we have high taxes. With a secondary structure or a large side yard, at some point, as people got older and wanted to stay in their homes, they might have sold off that second structure or the side lot to get some extra income.”

Lipo points out that some of the more prominent estate coach houses-turned-single-family homes include the former carriage house to the Hales Mansion at the corner of Oak Park Avenue and Chicago Avenue and an E. E. Roberts-designed barn converted to a home on Elizabeth Court.

“In the estate section, some of these structures were large enough to be an entire house and included kitchens,” Lipo said.

That is the case with 616 Iowa St. in Oak Park, a coach-house turned single family-home directly behind a larger estate house on East Avenue. New to the market, the three- bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom home originally included a garage for the estate home, with living space above. 

Realtor Margaret McSheehy of Historic Homes Realty, who is listing the house for $790,000, says the story she heard is that one of the original owners’ daughters lived in the coach house.

The main house and the coach house were designed in 1911 by Oak Park architect Thornton Herr. Lipo notes that Herr was an Oak Park-raised architect, who graduated from Oak Park and River Forest High School and whose father was the editor of a small local newspaper called the Oak Park Reporter. 

Herr designed the main house for John Nelson and his wife, Anna. Nelson owned a business selling horse blankets. In 1916, the Nelsons sold the house to William and Elizabeth Hoch. William was a Sears executive and he and Elizabeth were charter members and benefactors of St. Giles Church, according to Lipo.

Like the main house in front, 616 Iowa St. features a brick exterior and red tile roof. A decorative wood trim painted in shades of green and cream encircles the exterior, and the house boasts 32 original art glass windows.

McSheehy notes that the entire two-story house has been renovated. 

“At one point, it was in disrepair,” she said. “Previous owners used the best contractors to do a thorough restoration. They spared no expense.”

Those owners took the garage space on the first floor and turned it into a family room that opens off of the completely-remodeled kitchen. In order to keep the exterior of the historic home intact, they retained original garage windows that now flank the fireplace. A new two-car garage was constructed at the end of the private driveway to the home.

In the kitchen, custom cherry cabinetry makes the most of the nooks and crannies in the home. A wine storage area graces the butler’s pantry, which leads to the dining room with a wood-beamed ceiling. 

The renovation of the second floor included a new large master bathroom with separate bathtub and shower and two sinks. In the hall between the bedrooms, custom linen storage was added. The second and third bedrooms share a hall bathroom.

McSheehy said that the house has its own private driveway and garage but benefits from its proximity to the original house to the west due to the iron fencing surrounding both houses. 

“There are not many gated houses in Oak Park,” McSheehy said. “It’s great for security and great for dog owners.”

While many estate properties were subdivided in the past, Lipo says he sees the pendulum swinging back again now. 

“The funny thing is, the whole thing has become sort of a trend again. Now, we see bigger garages going up,” Lipo said. “There’s been a rediscovery of this idea lately. It used to be a barn, a garage or housing for servants. It’s sort of coming full circle. It’s evolved into something for elderly parents to live in or a work-from-home office. It’s kind of an interesting life cycle.”

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