On Sunday, May 5 from 1 to 5 p.m. the Oak Park River Forest Historical Society will open up six homes in River Forest’s northwest quadrant. Just 100 years ago, this area north of Division Street was farmland and forest. 

The 1920s were a period of rapid development of the former Longfield Farm, located between what is now Lathrop and Park avenues, and of a forested area between Park and Thatcher, developed by Albert F. Keeney and known as the Keeney subdivision. 

Pre-Depression era developers saw a future in which paving North Avenue and Harlem Avenue would provide easy access to the prairies and forests, as well as prime real estate opportunities for families looking for large homes with modern amenities.

Mary Boyaris, chairwoman of the housewalk, says the area is a fascinating look back into a suburban building boom. 

“The Longfield family was very influential in River Forest and Elmwood Park and lent $1,000 to Elmwood Park to cover the cost of incorporation,” Boyaris said. “John Longfield died in 1918, and his kids sold off the farm land, keeping the house, in 1922. It all sold in two weeks. This was a period of huge growth in the area.”

Just west of the Longfield farm parcels, developer Keeney saw promise in the village. Boyaris says he was a developer on a large scale, who developed the North Avenue corridor through Chicago and Austin and had a similar vision for Lake Street.

 “He gobbled up land and then just sat on it,” Boyaris said, noting that he was the biggest landowner in this section of River Forest. 

“In 1925, he wanted to pave North Avenue all the way to Thatcher, and it was his policy to acquire large tracts of land in the path of progress and wait for the demand to come.”

Frank Lipo, executive director of the historical society, says this year’s walk points to a very interesting time in River Forest’s history. 

“We have a mosaic map, which is sort of an aerial photo, of the village published in the Oak Leaves in 1926,” Lipo said. “You can see the Dominican Priory, Rosary College, and what became Trinity High School, and then you just see big open fields west of Lathrop and a fair amount of tree coverage towards Thatcher. It’s really interesting to look at this quadrant and realize how recently it was developed.”

Willard School connection

Lipo notes that as the homes were being developed at a rapid pace, it soon became clear that another school would be needed for the village. 

“Our walk happens to tie in with the 90th anniversary of Willard School, which was built for the families of these new houses. The first students came to the school in 1929. 

“An Oak Leaves story from September of that year is titled, ‘Willard School relieves congestion.’ With 125 pupils, the school board president noted that all rooms on the first and second floors were occupied and stated, ‘With the rapid development of north River Forest, it will not be long before the entire building will be needed.'”

The new school in the middle of the prairie was soon surrounded by houses.

“It’s the kind of suburban development story that we don’t really think about around here,” Lipo said.

To tie in with Willard’s 90th anniversary — a celebration at the school is planned for the fall of 2019 — Willard School will be a pick-up site for tickets for the historical society’s May 5 walk.

Sneak peeks into the houses

Peggy Sinko, president of historical society’s board, researched one of the houses on this year’s walk and says what she learned about the Ashland Avenue home could be titled “the cautionary tale of the Great Depression.”

She says that developer Chris Reier, an Oak Park builder who built dozens of homes in the area, intended to build six homes on the block, starting in the summer of 1929. He built the first, which sold fairly quickly, and then set to work on the second across the street. By the time the French revival-style home was completed in 1931, the stock market had crashed, taking with it interest in lavish houses.

The house had features that were not the norm for the era. 

“It was built with central air conditioning,” Sinko said. “This was a big deal then. It was so unusual to see it in a home that the Chicago Tribune wrote an article about it.”

The home also included a three-car garage, but was too rich for many to contemplate buying. It sat vacant for four years before selling in 1935 to William Kruppenbacher. The half-brother of Mars Candy heiress Ethel Mars, Kruppenbacher became the president of Mars and lived in the home for 20 years. 

Kurt Etchingham researched a Lathrop Avenue home designed by architect Samuel E. Bird. He says Bird is a story unto himself. 

“He lived in Oak Park for 60 years,” Etchingham said. “He taught industrial arts at Oak Park High School for 10 years before opening his architectural office. He considered himself more of an engineer that an architect.”

Another favorite home that Etchingham researched on Forest Avenue was designed in the French eclectic style by Jerome Cerny. 

“He was a Czech immigrant who became one of the premier architects of the French eclectic style,” Cerny said. “It’s wonderful to have so many of his homes in River Forest. His goal was to have homes that exuded Old World charm, but the interiors were very contemporary for the time.”

Sinko says that the historical society housewalk aims to go beyond the homes themselves and celebrates a neighborhood, great architecture and the interesting stories that always come up during research. 

“The walk is not just about presenting beautiful homes,” Sinko said. “We talk about people and put homes in the perspective of the neighborhood and the time period. In this case we learn a lot about the 1920s and the exuberance of the time.”

Tickets for the housewalk are $30 ($25 for historical society members) and can be purchased online at oprfmuseum.org/events/tales-our-houses-tell-housewalk or by calling 708-848-6755. Tickets purchased on the day of the event are $35. Tickets can be picked up on the day of the walk at Willard School, 1250 Ashland Ave. in River Forest.

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