As an Army brat who moved what seemed like every 10 minutes, I am always in search of home. I’ve lived happily on Kenilworth Avenue in Oak Park for 20 years, but I can’t resist imagining living in other houses, or fixing them up for others.
I’m particularly fond of finding a place that’s fallen on hard times and restoring it to what it used to be. The crown jewel of my fixer-uppers is about to come on the market. Here’s how it happened.
So, I’m walking my dog, Gabby, and I come to the corner of Erie and Marion, where there is an Open House sign. From the outside, the place is old and unkempt, a former single-family house that is now a two-flat, with burgundy asphalt shingling and an uninviting front porch. There’s a weariness about the place, a dispiritedness.
“Ew,” Gabby the talking dog says. “We’re not going in there, are we?”
But we do, and what I see there is even less alluring than the outside. Also, there is a bad smell.
But. The high ceilings! The light! The bones of the place! One of the things I love about living in Oak Park is seeing all the old houses, so full of character and history.
One of the things I fear about living in Oak Park is that places with character will be replaced by things that have no character whatsoever and that, in addition, are poorly built.
I’ve learned a lot about integrity in building from my partner, Bob Pichiotti. He did my house, built in 1909, which was such a wreck (raccoons living in it, trees falling on it, electrical system like something out of a Frankenstein movie) that someone wanted to tear it down — but the village wouldn’t let him.
Instead, Bob bought the place from the guy who wanted to raze it, restored it, and the Historic Preservation Commission of Oak Park gave him an award for outstanding work. It’s hanging in my entryway because he’s too modest to hang it in his own.
I talk to the realtor, who is standing by the fireplace in the dining room a little like Eeyore, not exactly fending off offers. I tell him I’m a writer, but that I love fixing up old places with my partner, who, in my opinion, is the Michelangelo of developers: not only a skillful builder, but an artist who isn’t afraid to envision plans for a place that probably no one else could, and then take his time in executing them, perfecting them.
If he puts up a wall and then decides maybe he doesn’t like it, he has no problem taking it down. He makes a house he would want to live in: practical but also full of charm and tasteful detail.
He adds a kind of playfulness, too: witness the hideaway nook in one of the bedrooms in the house on Marion, and the deluxe doggie shower (which, if I have my way, will have dog paw print subway tile.) He understands that although not everyone will see and understand the quality of his work, especially that behind the walls, he sees it. He doesn’t skimp. And he does the kind of work that lasts.
The realtor shows me around the rest of the place, including the upstairs, which makes me gasp and wonder how anyone could have lived there. I think, “Uh oh. This is going to be a tough sell.” But I resolve to talk to Bob about the house. I feel it’s worth saving. I feel it could be great. Besides, it kind of whispered to me when I was there.
I show Bob the place and he’s doubtful. We talk about whether to keep it a two-flat or convert it back to a single- family home, which would be a lot more work. We go for the “lot more work,” apparently because we’re both gluttons for punishment. Here comes a total gut job.
The first thing that happens is that Bob takes off the ugly exterior shingles, and beneath it finds unique hand carvings that are exquisite. No one knew that they were there. He calls me and tells me to come and see. When I get there, I just stand on the sidewalk, looking up. The craftsmanship! And I think, “Yup. Worth saving.” And the house says, “Told you.”
What follows are long months that turn into years, where Bob does his slow-motion bibbidi-bobbidi-boo, and the transformation occurs: a brick-and-board Cinderella rises from the ashes.
There are discussions about layout, about tile, about cabinet choices in the kitchen that will offer tons of storage, about whether the extra room on the first floor should be an office or a laundry room. Bob makes it so that it can be either. We find the exact right artist to make leaded glass for the front door. Bob finds the basement ceiling too low and so he lowers the floor. That’s right. I never even heard of that!
In the end, what we’re left with is something we are both proud of. A kitchen that is both huge and welcoming, both classic and contemporary. A side porch that you can’t help but envision yourself sitting out on. Stylish bathrooms on all floors. Lots of options for using rooms that make the best sense for you.
Most of all, that light. Those bones! That ineffable sense of something recovered that needed not to be lost. To say nothing of the fact that it’s only a couple of blocks from the house to downtown, and another short walk to elegant Forest Avenue. Plus, if you’re out of Trader Joe’s excellent onion crunch, you can go out in the yard and they can throw it over to you.
A couple times a week, I go over to the house, once so sad-looking, so dying looking, but now a study in vibrancy and grace. I feel two ways. I’m so excited for someone to live there and enjoy it, but I’m jealous, too, because I wish I could live there. But we did it.
We’re almost done. We brought back to life a beautiful house over 100 years old. We’re helping to keep Oak Park, Oak Park. And maybe the people who buy it will let Gabby come over and use the dog shower.