Blink and you will miss it. That’s how fast real estate listings are going in River Forest right now. In the case of 819 Thatcher Ave., there wasn’t even enough time to blink. The house, a grand estate complete with garden house and coach house located on one of the largest residential lots in the village, wasn’t officially listed before it was under contract.
Some people know the house by the name Marygate — it’s carved in the stone on the front gate, and there is a statue of the Virgin Mary in the front yard. Dennis Callahan, who with his siblings grew up in the house and is selling it on behalf of his mother’s estate, notes that his mother named the house when the family moved into the home in 1968.
“In the front hall, there is a little 3-by-3 room, not really quite a closet,” Callahan said. “I don’t know what prior owners did with it, but we had a statue of Mary in there on top of a fake waterfall. There was an iron gate at the front, and you closed it and had Marygate.”
His mother was a devout Catholic according to Callahan. When he moved back to the house to take care of her in her later years, he says that he made sure she got to Mass every week at St. Luke’s.
Growing up in the house with his three sisters was “way cool,” according to Callahan. Although a breakfast room and family room were likely later additions to the house, he notes that much of the home remains as it was when it was first built.
Oak Park River Forest Historical Society Executive Director Frank Lipo says that the house was built around 1918 for Walter Gerts. Although Gerts and his family moved to Thatcher Avenue from another River Forest home on Quick Avenue, he was originally from Oak Park.
According to Lipo, Walter Gerts was a son of George Gerts and grew up in the family home on Lake Street in Oak Park, located roughly where the Grace Church rectory stands today.
The elder Gerts moved to Oak Park in 1869 and had his own brush manufacturing firm. When he died, Oak Park scions Austin and Lombard served as his pallbearers.
Walter took over the family business when his father died in 1914. He hired the Chicago architectural team of Woltersdorf & Bernhard to construct his house on Thatcher Avenue. Lipo notes that Woltersdorf designed Chicago’s Tree Studios and many other commercial and industrial buildings.
According to Lipo, the large stone home with the tiled roof was well-received and an article about it appeared in the periodical Western Architect in 1922.
Today, Lipo says the house remains “one of the grandest houses and estates left in River Forest.”
For the Callahan family, it was just home — albeit one with some unusual features. The home had a built-in music system featuring organ-like pipes in the living room which connected to a sound-proof room in the basement. A setup similar to a player piano allowed paper rolls in the basement to play music in the living room.
While there were plans for a pool that never materialized, the yard features a separate structure that the Callahans called the garden house. Connected to the main house by an underground tunnel, the garden house has a domed ceiling and shuffle board courts inlaid in tile on the floor. Callahan recalls a pool table, ping pong and many family parties in the space.
The family also utilized the coach house living space above the garage, with all of the Callahan children living there at different times before they launched into their independent lives.
Inside the home, much of the original grandeur has been maintained. A stunning front door and sidelights are decorated top to bottom with bright circles of stained glass. The entry foyer features a coved ceiling with decorative painting. The living room’s ceiling is also painted with a mural, and iron gates lead into the dining room.
Elizabeth August, realtor with @properties who helped broker the sale for the Callahans, says the home is in great condition.
Callahan said that he tried for years to get his mother to update the original kitchen, which has only about six feet of space between cabinets and room for a five-foot tall refrigerator. According to August, the new owners are planning some updates to the home, including making over the kitchen to accommodate their family.
While it might need a bit of modernity, the grand dame’s original style has a lot of appeal according to August.
“Think about when this was in its prime,” she said. “The entertaining that must have gone on here.”
The history of the home is part of its charm. Growing up in River Forest, August says everyone knew of the home.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and you just don’t see homes like this,” August said.
She points to the woodwork lining the stairwell and the powder room with gold ceilings and says, “Things like this just aren’t done anymore.”
August is not surprised that the house sold before she officially listed it. One reason? The realtor says River Forest real estate is moving fast these days.
“River Forest is a good deal compared to Hinsdale or even Elmhurst,” August said.
Also, she says, “This house hasn’t been on the market in a long time. There was lots of local interest and interest from the city. Because of the pandemic, we’re seeing lots of people wanting to change and looking for a different lifestyle and more land.”