It may not be unusual in Oak Park for a couple of a certain age to decide to sell their family home after their children have grown and moved away. It is also not rare for that home to be an architecturally significant home. After all, we are talking about Oak Park. 

The village, with its abundance of architecturally significant older homes, has long been a draw for those with ties to the architectural history of the Chicago-area. While their circumstances may not be unusual, Joan and Jim Collins are unique in their long history in the village, their work in the architectural field, their E.E. Roberts house and the imprint they will leave behind when they leave Oak Park.

Jim Collins was born in Oak Park and raised in Chicago and says his Oak Park roots are deep. His mother went to high school with Ernest Hemingway, as did his father. The war memorial in Scoville Park bears a family member’s name. 

When Jim met Joan, she was a school teacher in Cicero living in Oak Park, so the couple decided to set down roots in the village after they married.

They became the third owners of 419 Randolph St. in the 1970s and set about making the home their own. An architectural engineer, Jim Collins liked the connection to well-known Oak Park architect E.E. Roberts. 

“He designed hundreds of homes in Oak Park, and his homes tend to have an excellent floor plan,” Joan said. “This house is one of his smaller plans, but it lives well.”

Long-term project

Jim recalls that when they purchased the home, the boiler bore the installation date of 1911, and everything in the house was painted mint green. He and Joan stripped paint off the original woodwork and removed elaborate drapes to showcase the original leaded-glass windows.

“Even the attic has nine leaded glass windows,” said Jim.

Having an architectural engineer in the family came in handy when the front steps of the house had to be rebuilt, and Joan notes that Jim’s skills were again called into play when they replaced their one-car garage with a 2.5-car garage with a studio above.

As they raised their three sons in the home, Jim and Joan at first used that studio space as a work-from-home office. As Jim’s business expanded, they turned their basement into a workspace, complete with kitchenette.

Jim took advantage of his work as a reclamation architect to add character to the home. While working on a project downtown, the project’s contractor uncovered an alley of old brick and gave some of the castoffs to Jim, who used them to create a garden path behind his home. 

When the South Side Francis Apartments were town down in the 1970s, Jim used some of the building’s historic frieze to create a unique exterior focal point on his home.

Part of Oak Park history

Jim Collins worked on several projects in and around Oak Park, and one that will always tie him to the village is the apartment building at Madison Street and Wisconsin Avenue in the village. 

When he was working on the plans, his mother had recently passed away, so he named the street Susan Collins Lane to honor her memory. The building represents another generation of the family as well. 

The Collins’ son, who is a portrait painter living in Florence, Italy, created the sculptures decorating the exterior of the building.

All of her time living in Oak Park and working alongside her husband also inspired a love of architecture in Joan. She writes about architecture, and one of her first books featured architect Louis Sullivan as a character.

As they look forward to the next chapter of their lives, the Collinses have fond memories of their neighborhood and time in Oak Park. Joan says the neighborhood near Elmwood and Randolph was an idyllic place to raise their sons. 

“The school system was good. It was a great place to live and figure out what you want to be,” she said. “When we moved here in the seventies, Oak Park had such a sense of community. It’s that kind of community that makes Oak Park special.”

“We’ve really loved Oak Park,” said Jim.

The details

The E.E. Roberts designed home at 419 Randolph St. is a four-bedroom, four-bathroom house offering over 1,800 square feet of living space. The coach house, walk-up attic and finished basement space offer plenty of room to spread out, and homeowner Joan Collins says the backyard is “situated in such a way that it’s very private. You get to see the beautiful leaves in the fall.”

Meg Wygonik-Kryger of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Chicago is listing the home for $615,000 and says she expects the fourth owners of the home will find a lot to like. 

“Someone’s going to love it for how well they’ve preserved the architectural details. The coach house is just phenomenal,” Wygonik-Kryger said. “Obviously, with COVID, there are so many possibilities with that space.”

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