On Nov. 4, the Oak Park Village Board of Trustees approved landmark status for the Robbins-Chapman House at 408 N. Kenilworth Ave., acting on the recommendation of the Historic Preservation Commission, which approved the application in October.
Myrtle and George Mason have lived in their home on Kenilworth Avenue for 50 years, and while they loved the stucco structure in Oak Park’s Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District, they didn’t delve into its history when they first moved in.
The two transplants from Jamaica were busy raising three children, working and serving the community through their time on local school boards and with the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust. Now, in their retirement, the two were prompted to look into the provenance of their home by a young visitor.
“My cousin and her 9 year old were visiting from Florida,” Myrtle said. “Rohan was curious about our house — he loves Frank Lloyd Wright — and I had no idea what to tell him about it.”
Neighbors had suggested the house might have been a Tallmadge and Watson design, but the Masons wanted to know more. They called the village and spoke to Doug Kaarre, who at the time was on staff as an urban planner. He gave them a packet on historic homes that included the names of experts willing to help research. They were immediately drawn to Oak Park architect Jack Lesniak.
“We’d met before as he volunteers with the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, and George was on the first board for the trust, and I was a few years after that,” Myrtle said.
Historic research report
As Lesniak detailed in his report, the house was built in 1890 for Alfred Louis Robbins and designed by the architectural firm Patton and Fisher. Robbins worked for the National School Furniture Company in Chicago and was living in River Forest with his wife, Clara, and two children when they purchased the lot on Kenilworth Avenue, then known as Willis. The family later added three more children to the mix.
Lesniak’s report includes an 1894 advertisement for the architects Normand Patton and Reynolds Fisher, in which they tout their four designs on that block of Kenilworth Avenue.
There are no remaining depictions of the home as originally designed, but based on the Sanborn maps of the neighborhood, Lesniak concluded that that home probably shared many design elements with the William C. Douglas House that Patton and Fisher designed across the street in 1893.
The Robbinses remained in the home for only four years before decamping for life in California. The house changed hands a few more times before George Chapman purchased the home in 1910. A manager with Quaker Oats in Chicago, Chapman and his wife and children set about making the house their own and hired architects Thomas Tallmadge and Vernon Watson to create a $5,000 addition.
Lesniak said that Tallmadge and Watson did more than add onto the existing house; they essentially remade the home into a new style.
“1910 is an interesting year because it’s a period of time when cement or stucco houses were en vogue. It was a way to modernize houses,” Lesniak said of the stucco application, which concealed the home’s original clapboard siding.
Lesniak points to a 1913 House Beautiful article written by local architect Charles White on the popularity of “cement homes” in which White used pictures of the Robbins-Chapman house as an example.
Lesniak said the remodel added Prairie-style elements to the house.
“Tallmadge and Watson gutted the house, but the original bones are there,” he said. “The two-story porch on the front is new, but the original roof outline is the same.”
While Lesniak says the architect duo designed roughly 30 houses in Oak Park, this is the only home he knows of that they remodeled. In 1930, Chapman brought Tallmadge and Watson back to remodel the interior of the home. This time, the plan was to modernize the Prairie interior.
The fireplace surrounds were changed and wood molding was also altered. Lesniak says these and many original details were revealed to him when he visited the Burnham Ryerson Library at the Art Institute of Chicago.
“They have the Tallmadge and Watson plans for the house which were drawn over the original lines of the house,” Lesniak said. “On the first floor you could see the original trim and light fixtures. Dotted lines show original walls that were removed during their remodel.”
The Masons discovered original blueprints for the 1930 remodel in the home. While the remodel focused on an upstairs bathroom, Lesniak notes the blueprints show the fireplace, windows and wood trim that were altered at that time.
Lesniak has helped other Oak Parkers research their homes for landmark status and says that the Robbins-Chapman House provided an unmatched opportunity to delve into the work of two significant pairs of architects as well as two significant remodels.
Historic Preservation Commission Acting Interim Chair Rebecca Houze agrees that being associated with the two sets of architects was a very interesting part of the home’s history.
“The house itself is a really nice addition to our set of landmarks in our community, because it was designed by two pairs of significant architects,” Houze said. “It is also very characteristic of a certain architectural trend to modernize your Victorian, traditional home into a more modern, Prairie-style home, something that is very interesting in Oak Park.”
Susie Trexler, the current urban planner focusing on historic preservation for the village, says the landmark process is an important one for the village.
“Landmarking helps protect the historic and architectural character of your house and by extension, the neighborhood,” Trexler said. “It’s that historic and architectural character that Oak Park is known for.”
Houze said that “landmarking your own home is something that homeowners like to do partly, because it’s recognition for the home and the work that homeowners have done to maintain it, and there are certain financial incentives through the state if you’ve done a significant amount of work on the home.”
Contrary to popular opinion, Houze notes that the landmark designation does not prevent future remodeling by the homeowners and says that the landmark status protects the exterior of the home that is visible from the street only.
When homeowners need to make changes to the front exterior, she says that the Historic Preservation Commission has an architecture advisory committee that will, free of charge, help with situations involving needed updates to roofs, windows, porches and other exterior details.