If you squint when looking at 343 Ashland Ave. in River Forest, you might be able to see what the house looked like when it was built over 100 years ago. Originally a small, clapboard-sided bungalow, the home is altogether something different now. When viewed from the rear, the home is a soaring glass and steel representation of modernity.
Michael Ruehle, who owns the home with his wife, Janice Tennant, says the pair were not responsible for the modern addition to the home. That work was accomplished in 2002-03 by a previous owner, a well-known local architect. The modern addition is a large part of why they purchased the home in 2010.
“When my wife and I first moved to Chicago in 2004, we were visiting family in the area and saw the house from Hawthorne,” Ruehle said. “I thought then, ‘That’s a very intriguing house.’ Little did I know, one day it would be ours.”
When an expanding family had them house hunting in the wake of the 2008 real estate recession, they found out the home was for sale, and Ruehle says he jumped at the chance to buy it.
A contractor who focuses on green building design and timber framing, Ruehle was quite captivated by the home’s modern addition.
His wife was not so sure.
“It had quirks that my wife was not thrilled with,” Ruehle said. “I was given marching orders to fix five things in our first year there, and then we could consider buying it.”
The architect who designed the addition was originally from a much warmer climate, and Ruehle said he hadn’t quite recalibrated his skills for the Midwest’s winters. Ruehle ran a test to see how airtight the home was, and found it was incredibly leaky. The home was in need of efficiency updates, which Ruehle was uniquely situated to put in place.
With no way to add interior insulation, he added exterior insulation when they replaced the exterior siding. When replacing the roof, they also added rigid insulation and improved airflow ventilation. He also added solar panels. By the time he was finished, the home had earned an Energy Star rating for energy efficiency.
On top of doing what he calls the “invisible” work on the home, Ruehle says they also improved the primary bathroom, replaced hardwood flooring, had the lot professionally landscape and re-worked the exterior patio, “all the stuff that makes the house livable,” he says.
Detached studio space
One of the main drivers of their purchase was the large studio in the rear of the home. The two-story space on top of a new garage was designed by the architect as a studio. Because the six lots at the end of Ashland were zoned for commercial use, Ruehle says the architect was able to get permission to build a studio for his work.
For Ruehle, the space provided the perfect space to operate his business, with a separate entry off the alley for client meetings. His wife also was able to use the space when she was working remotely. The building includes a bathroom and room for a kitchenette.
River Forest is considering making accessory dwelling units legal in the village as part of its affordable housing plan, and Ruehle says that it is possible Illinois will make similar changes statewide. He says if that occurs, “This small building is just a few small renovations away from being a separate living space.”
Even as is, with the pandemic causing more companies to reconsider the need for in-person work in a city office every day, Ruehle says the ability to work from home in a private space, near but away from the rest of the family is a big incentive for many workers.
On the market
A new position for Tennant moved the family to Michigan, and they have been leasing the home. As it became clear that they would be in Michigan long term, the couple decided to list the home for sale with Gullo & Associates for $1.1 million.
Laura Maychruk, one of the listing agents, says that modern interiors and the addition of the studio make this a house unlike any other.
“The two walls of windows facing each other in the yard are pretty cool,” Maychruk said. “If you’re a light person, this house is for you. It’s just filled with light.”
Ruehle says that they would love to still be in the house if their circumstances permitted it, but thinks the next owners are going to find as much to love there as they did.
“It’s kind of got all these environmental bells and whistles, but it’s also aesthetically pleasing,” Ruehle said.
A friend of his summed up the house, by nicknaming it the stealth house, Ruehle says.
“The only thing that gives it away from the front is the ultra-modern staircase,” Ruehle said. “It has a real wow factor when you walk in. You can see the entire backyard from the kitchen.”