The year 2020 saw the cancellation of all major housewalks in Oak Park, starting with the Kitchen Walk, then the historical society’s walk, then Wright Plus. One by one, the harbingers of spring in Oak Park and River Forest were postponed and then cancelled as the COVID-19 pandemic brought indoor gatherings to a halt.

The Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest’s local house tour is the first to return, offering its annual Tales Our Houses Tell Housewalk on Sunday, May 2 from 1 to 5 p.m. 

In order to ensure the safety of volunteers and participants, and for the first time, the housewalk will be a hybrid event, with parts of the tours taking place outside, and small-group tours of the first floor of local homes. Masks will be required inside and outside.

Historical Society Executive Director Frank Lipo says the organization is grateful for all of the work that went into making the walk a reality. 

“It’s exciting that so many volunteers, pulling together, can plan such a fun and educational event, and tweak it in 2021 just enough to keep it safe for all involved,” Lipo said.  

Housewalk chairwoman Mary Boyaris is excited to finally be able to hold this walk. She notes that the volunteer researchers were just ramping up their work last spring when everything shut down.

“Nobody expected this to last a year,” she said.

The subject matter was well worth waiting for, she says. This year’s walk will focus on five homes in the subdivision designed in the early 20th century by Thomas H. Hulbert south of Madison Street along Clinton and Kenilworth avenues. 

“This neighborhood is so unbelievable,” Boyaris said.

Neighborhood Unity

Researchers had fun digging into the history of the area. Historical Society board member Kurt Etchingham found an advertisement from 1904 from a local nursery, showing the shrubs and trees planted on the streets of the Hulbert neighborhood. 

The streets once had four gates — on Madison and Congress at both Clinton and Kenilworth, and many assumed the gates were part of Hulbert’s original plans for the subdivision. 

In fact, research uncovered the gates were the work of the Hulbert Improvement Club, a popular convention at the turn of the 20th century. The Oak Park Improvement Club was founded in 1900, Boyaris notes, two years before the village was incorporated. 

The Hulbert Improvement Club was founded to build these four gates to keep out vehicles from the Wisconsin Cement Company.

Other neighborhood pursuits in the early days included tennis courts and progressive dinner parties established by an early homeowner. Today, Boyaris says the area is just as neighborly and has a 50-year tradition of block parties and Fourth of July celebrations.

A peek inside

Homeowners Sharon Henk and Steven Saraceno have lived in their Hulbert home for almost 23 years. When they found it, they weren’t looking to move from their previous Oak Park home, but the fireplace and walk-up third floor sold them on the space for the family. In addition, they loved the neighborhood that was full of what they called “hidden gems.”

Over the years, they’ve raised four children in the house and completed untold number of projects. They stripped paint off the original woodwork and revealed original accordion-style windows. They removed layers of shag carpeting to find out that the hardwood flooring had been covered with linoleum throughout the house — even in the closets.

They are still enjoying improvements added by earlier owners. A garage was built in 1910 to complement the 1906 house, and later owners enclosed the front porch in 1923. During the pandemic, they’ve tackled more home improvement projects, like painting the interior and exterior. The couple are excited to share their home with the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest.

Jim Grogan, a Historical Society board member, has researched the neighborhood for the walk and says 616 Clinton Ave. has a fascinating history of people who have lived there. The first owner was a miner from England. He had no formal education but learned shorthand at correspondence school. When he came to America, he worked his way up to become one of the country’s pre-eminent medical reporters.

“I view him as an archetypal buyer for the Hulbert home, middle-income, quality people,” Grogan said of that owner, who worked in the city and raised his kids in the suburbs.

According to Grogan, Hulbert was more of a salesman than an architect and preyed on fears of city life by touting the area free of apartments, full of trees and fresh air. Grogan calls his marketing “a lot of good salesmanship.”

Etchingham’s research shows the power of Hulbert’s ads in city newspapers, saying they stressed the notion that when you bought a Hulbert home, you were buying de facto membership in a planned community where the type of residences, the size of the lots, the public landscaping and, by implication, the social and economic status of your neighbor, was controlled.

Depending on the inclusion of optional upgrades such as built-in buffets, bay windows, art glass and double staircases, Hulbert houses cost their original owners from $4,200 to $7,500.

While Hulbert’s advertising tactics might not work today, Grogan says the homes still draw buyers from the city looking for a little plot of land. They might be a bit harder to come by, though. 

“People who live in these homes tend to stay there,” Grogan said. “There are great backyards and great houses.”

Before you go

Tickets to the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest’s Tales Our Houses Tell Housewalk are $30 each or $25 for Historical Society members. 

Tickets can be purchased at oprfmuseum.org or in person at the Oak Park River Forest Museum, 129 Lake St. in Oak Park, Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

Tickets will cost $35 the day of the walk at the Rush Medical Office Building at Oak Park Hospital, 610 S. Maple Ave., near the site of the walk. Advance tickets can also be picked up after 12:30 p.m. at the hospital the day of the walk.

To reach the ticket pickup/day-of-event purchase point, turn south from Madison Street onto Maple Avenue, drive past the hospital main entrance and valet parking area and make a left at the first corner, which is Monroe Street.

Look for the table under the entrance canopy of the building. There will be no public restrooms available, because the office building is closed on Sundays.

No children under the age of 12 and no pets are permitted. Mobility may be limited in some homes and on walkways.

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