The big names get a lot of attention in the near west suburbs: Frank Lloyd Wright, William Drummond, E.E. Roberts. Local architecture aficionados and amateurs alike are familiar with their designs, and the mother of all housewalks, Wright Plus, features their oeuvre every year.
Less well-known, but widely prolific, Charles Kristen is another architect who left a mark on the village that is quite substantial.
Kristen was born in Austria in 1890 and came to the United States as a teenager. He studied at the Ohio Mechanical Institute, now part of the University of Cincinnati. In his twenties, he moved to Chicago, where he worked as an architectural draftsman for the firm Marshall & Fox.
Frank Lipo, executive director of the Oak Park River Forest Historical Society says Marshall & Fox were one of the preeminent firms in the city. They designed hotels such as the Drake and Blackstone and buildings such as the South Shore Country Club, now the South Shore Cultural Center.
While many architects were not formally trained at this time, Lipo said that Kristen was the real deal. He had education, training and was a member of architectural associations. Lipo calls him “a serious architect.”
Marshall & Fox closed in 1926 when Fox died. Shortly thereafter, Kristen took on more of a leading role in his next endeavor.
An October 1927 Oak Leaves article, titled “$500,000 Home Development,” detailed the 20 homes planned by developer Joseph Wassell and designed by architect Kristen. The homes were planned for the east side of Fair Oaks Avenue in Oak Park, between Greenfield Street and North Avenue.
A Chicago Tribune article on the development notes that just four years earlier, the site was a “howling wilderness.” The article noted that an interesting feature of the development was that each home would be a different design.
Kristen’s designs included English, Tudor, Colonial and Norman style homes. Lipo notes that these designs were typically modified with the word “revival.”
“In every era, people want something modern,” Lipo said. “In this era, there was a lot of talk about revival styles which implemented design elements of the past with different technological advancements.”
Kristen, who with his wife and two daughters lived in a bungalow at 701 N. Lombard Ave., designed over 100 homes in Oak Park, with numerous homes north of Division Street and south of North Avenue on Euclid, Kenilworth and Linden avenues.
His design at 408 S. Austin Blvd., the Poley Building, was billed in the press as a “sumptuous” apartment building in 1929. He also designed numerous homes in Galewood, Lincolnwood Sauganash and Park Ridge.
When the Great Depression hit, Kristen turned his hand to writing and penned newspaper stories on how to update the traditional home. During this era, he wrote about small remodeling jobs and exterior makeovers, which could change the character of a home. Lipo said that this ability to pivot when there was no longer a market for expensive homes shows Kristen’s motivated character.
Kristen covered how thoughtful updates could improve a home inexpensively. One article used his own home’s small entryway an example of a space that could be updated with lighting and art glass. Some of his stories were illustrated with drawings showing before and after makeovers. One article was illustrated with renderings showing a River Forest farmhouse with a wraparound porch transformed into a Tudor Revival style home.
He also suggested that rejuvenating one’s home could give jobless carpenters some work.
By the late 1930s, he was back designing new homes and was the architect for larger homes such as 1205 Ashland Ave. and 1323 Jackson Ave. in River Forest, which he designed for the Buurma Brothers, who were building the home for H.G. Fisher.
In 1940, he designed 214 S. Euclid Ave. in Oak Park in the Art Moderne style. The home remains one of the few local homes in this style.
“Kristen came out of the high-end world of Marshall & Fox, adapted to the Depression by moving into remodeling and writing, and then moved back to high end homes,” Lipo said. “With the house on Euclid, he’s still trying out new ideas.”
Kristen died in Oak Park in 1948, and his obituary was published in the New York Times. His wife Margreta lived in their home until her death in 1971.
Former Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission Chairman Christopher Payne shared photos of Kristen’s work on the Preservation Oak Park Facebook page and says Kristen wasn’t known for one specific style, but that his ability to work in many styles produced a lot of homes worthy of esteem.
“This is one of those stories that’s not told enough,” Lipo said. “It’s so easy to focus on the big, celebrated architects, but every generation, there’s a lot of individually talented architects here. The cumulative sum of all of these houses is greater than just one design. … Even without superstar status, the whole body of work makes it interesting.”