The grand Victorian beauty at 139 S. Grove Ave. in Oak Park has just hit the market, and it’s sure to attract a lot of attention. Just west of Oak Park Avenue, the home might win the award for most breathtaking restoration in the village. That’s a tough title to win on a corner once voted the most beautiful corner in town, and where the two other houses designed by architect H.G. Fiddelke have also been carefully restored.
The house is listed at $1.4 million by Chris Garvey of the GRT Homes Group of EXP Realty. At roughly 7,600 square feet and with eight bedrooms and counting, the home has plenty of space to spread out.
In a town filled with historic homes, the 139 S. Grove Ave. stands apart not just for the amazing quality of the original finishes, but because so many original details have survived the past 125 years.
The home was constructed in 1894 by John Seaman at the cost of $17,000, when the cost of the average nearby home was $2,000. Seaman was a cooper who automated a barrel making process. He bought the entire block when it was still prairie and constructed several homes, keeping this one for himself.
The interiors reflect his barrel-making connections to the lumber trade. Seven different kinds of wood adorn the interior of the house, including curly birch, white ash and mahogany. The original wood was hand carved by Arts and Crafts wood carver Frank Ellis, with a wreath design repeated throughout the home in the wood trim.
Seaman didn’t skimp on the other fine details. Stained and leaded glass adorn most of the rooms, including a depiction of the book of knowledge in the library and other colorful glass windows with prism designs.
“They bounce rainbows about the rooms throughout the day,” Garvey said.
Also still in evidence are the home’s ornate ceiling murals. One front parlor has a ceiling depicting cherubs, while the library’s sports a floral design. The grand three-story staircase also includes a cherub light fixture on a newel post.
Garvey says Seaman was influenced by both the Paris World Fair of 1889 and the 1893 Columbian Exposition when he designed the home, painting the exterior white like the buildings in the Columbian Exposition.
In spite of its grandiose beginning, by the 1980s the house had fallen on hard times. Its exterior had been covered in asbestos siding, and its interior had been chopped up into a boarding house.
In the early 1980s Warren Stewart was working in real estate in Oak Park while also rehabbing smaller homes in the village when he walked by the house on a summer night.
He said there was a lamp on in the front office, but no signs of life, so he walked onto the porch to peek inside.
“Something just went through me,” Stewart said. “When I saw the mantle and the cherubs on the mural, I said, ‘I’ve got to buy that.'”
It took him a few years, but when he was 28, he purchased the house. He says that in 1986, it was the most money ever paid for a house south of Lake Street in an era when Oak Park was facing hard times.
Much of Lake Street was vacant and many of the village’s grand homes were in disrepair or in danger of being torn down. Indeed, the landlord from whom Stewart purchased the house intended to tear it down and replace it with apartments. Instead, he sold the entire home, along with 17 long-term tenants, to Stewart.
Long fascinated by the details of older homes, Stewart was a self-taught rehabber. He started out stripping paint off old wood, and with lots of help from the TV show “This Old House” and research at the Oak Park Public Library, he became a preservationist who would own and restore more than 20 homes in the area, including the Hales Mansion at 509 N. Oak Park Ave. and the Bohlander Mansion in Maywood.
“It had provenance, original features and everything you see in old house catalogues,” Stewart said of the Grove Avenue home. “The wood, the murals, the three-story staircase, the wainscot, the original refrigerator. Yeah, the house was shabby and tired, but it was intact.”
Stewart has moved on from Oak Park, but he still has fond memories of the house, saying “I was born to own that house. That house has been the hub of my life.”
He is quick to stress that while he was the first to start the preservation process, the current owners took things to the next level.
“They’ve done so much,” Stewart said. “They’ve been amazing stewards of the home. What I did was act as the go-between. I reversed the direction of gravity and they went further up. It’s inspiring and empowering.”
Current owner Ed Amstutz says that when he and his wife Elizabeth bought the house from the owners who purchased it from Stewart, they were looking for something with a sense of history and character.
“A house has a vibe, until you strip it clean and make it antiseptic,” Amstutz said about historic homes that have had all of their original details removed. “For better or worse, you have to find things that were made a long time ago to find that character.”
For Amstutz, the home’s many original details and the fact that there isn’t another home like it anywhere were part of its appeal. From the pocket doors to the cold water tap in the kitchen, which was connected to the original ice box, Amstutz says that it all adds up to the kind of house that he feels lucky to have called home.
Garvey says that with the onset of COVID-19, large suburban homes like this are experiencing a renaissance.
“It’s been a huge change. For years, people were downsizing, but now due to COVID and unrest in the city, people from the city are looking for more space,” Garvey said. “Large homes in Oak Park and River Forest in the $1-2 million range are selling at or near ask. Homes of size are swinging back into vogue.”
Garvey thinks that as more and more people seek the space to work from home and attend school from home, these old grand houses of the past will find a new appreciation.
According to Amstutz, the house adapts well to the circumstances of the past year and beyond. There is room for everyone to have their own space for work, recreation or school, but the house also lives large for holidays and special occasions.
While he says the house was perfect for their family of four, it also expanded well for holidays and yearly parties that they loved to host.
“It’s not a historical marvel, it’s a home,” he said