At long last, the River Forest Women’s Club at 526 Ashland Ave. has found a new set of owners. The historically landmarked home, designed in 1913 by William Drummond, had languished on the market for years.
In 2005, previous owners Paul and Ellen Coffey purchased the club for a reported price of $425,000 and poured approximately $2 million into rehabbing the home. In the process, they sought and obtained landmark protection for the Prairie Style building, through Landmarks Illinois.
The protective easement covers the exterior and portions of the home’s interior. After winning a Richard H. Driehaus Foundation award for their preservation work in 2008, the Coffeys listed the house for sale in 2012 for $1.575 million.
Despite a completely remodeled lower level, the quirky home — much of the main floor is auditorium space — failed to find a buyer. After many price reductions, it was last re-listed for $632,000 in October 2019.
Alliant Credit Union foreclosed on the house in January and relisted the house for sale in March for $600,000. Shortly thereafter, Elizabeth and Vladimir Barisik purchased the house for $560,000.
Steve Scheuring of Compass, who represented the Barisiks in the transaction, said the property came with plenty of baggage, some much greater than the $1 million unpaid loan on the property.
“What killed this house was the landmark designation,” Scheuring said. “You can’t change the majority of the first floor, and it’s basically a stage and a ballroom. Seventy percent of our buyers in Oak Park and River Forest are young families with children under the age of 5.”
In spite of those restrictions, he says the Barisiks had long been enamored with the house.
“My hat’s off to Vlad and Elizabeth,” Scheuring said. “From the start, they knew it would be challenge.
“The block is great. The bottom floor can be changed, and the kitchen is amazing. There is solar power, and the geothermal needs to be started up, but the potential is there.”
Vladimir Barisik says he fell in love with the house long before moving to the area. “I’ve been looking at this house in my mom and dad’s architectural books for years,” said Barisik, a native of Macedonia. “I dreamed about it when it first went on the market.”
After living in an Oak Park condo, he and his wife had moved to Iowa City while he finished his master’s degree. As they prepared to move back to the area, he did not know the house was still available, but he said Elizabeth noticed the listing, and they made plans to travel in for a showing.
Vladimir was excited about the home’s architectural history, and Elizabeth was reeled in by the home’s civic history.
“My first reaction — maybe I wasn’t as enthusiastic as he was — but once we got in there, I could really see what it could be,” said Elizabeth Barisik. “For me, it’s not just this building, but also what happened inside this building that we want to preserve.”
The couple are excited to share that history of women’s suffrage and dedication to local cultural causes like the River Forest Public Library with their two young children, but first they will tackle making the home into a good space for their family.
Vladimir Barisik says that Scheuring and Suzanne Germann of Landmarks Illinois prepared them well for what it meant to buy a historic structure – one of only two properties in the state with an easement on both the exterior and interior.
Scheuring, an Oak Park native who is no stranger to architecturally significant homes, says he never would have imagined that he would have had a part in the sale of this building. He said that prior to showings, Alliant’s agent made sure any potential buyers read the Landmarks Illinois restrictions.
“I gave them all the disclaimers,” Scheuring said. “I told them, ‘If you’re going to want to sell this down the line, you’ll have to make some changes.'”
Vladimir Barisik agree, saying, “It takes a unique buyer, a vision and a bit of courage. Taking this on will be a bit of a challenge.”
He praised the Coffeys, noting that while they didn’t get a good return on their investment, they laid the groundwork in preserving the home.
“Really, they did an incredible job,” he said. “We’re riding on their coattails. We are now thinking about how do we preserve it and make it work for the average buyer, which is a young family with two kids.”
After moving into the home during a pandemic, the couple are starting the process of finding an architect to help them realize their vision for the house.
“We have a few ideas,” Vladimir said. “I think we’re on the cusp of solving this puzzle of this awkward space.”
Their hope is to take advantage of the beauty of the first-floor auditorium space and make that their main living area. While that floor is subject to the Landmarks Illinois easement, the Barisiks aren’t deterred by the easement’s restrictions.
“We are constrained, but see it as an opportunity to work within the rules,” Vladimir said.
The couple can’t put up any walls in the room, but they hope to use furniture and lighting to designate different spaces in the large auditorium. They envision a space for a library, living and dining.
The downstairs level, which is not covered by the easement, will be reconfigured as well, in what will likely be a multi-phase project. In the future, they want to add a garage, perhaps after a design competition engaging Chicago-area architecture students.
“We would love to see a young, up-and-coming architect give us a bold idea,” Vladimir said. “We want to really get out of the box.”
The couple realizes the house has been the subject of much interest over the years and want to allay any fears people might have about their intentions.
“It is our duty to alleviate people’s possible questions about what we might be planning,” Vladimir said. “We see ourselves as the torch bearers to preserve this house for years to come.”
As they settle into their first weeks in the home, the Barisiks say they are taking their time to get to know the house and what it needs.
“We really want to be mindful and take it slowly,” Vladimir said. “We don’t foresee selling this space. We want to raise our kids here.”