After a tumultuous few years that saw housewalks cancelled and modified to emphasis outdoor spaces, the Oak Park River Forest Historical Society is back with a traditional housewalk that will give participants interior access to seven homes.
This year, the walk returns to its roots in River Forest, exploring some of the village’s oldest homes on the west side of the village.
Frank Lipo, executive director of the historical society says that while some of these homes have been featured on sidewalk walking tours that the historical society was able to keep going during the pandemic, this year is different.
“It’s great to actually get into these houses,” he said.
Historical society board member Mary Boyaris, who helped chair this year’s walk and has volunteered on previous historical society housewalks, says planning the walk in 2021 required a great deal of fortitude and good luck.
Originally planned as an exterior only walk, the 2021 housewalk fell in a period between waves of COVID-19. While the walk had several stops on the exterior of each featured home, small groups were allowed to enter homes for an interior glimpse.
“Last year was like winning the lottery,” Boyaris said, noting that while they had to skip the traditional thank you reception for volunteers and homeowners, the committee is hoping to combine the 2021 and 2022 receptions.
This year, things are looking up. At first, Boyaris says that two years into the pandemic she wasn’t sure if her usual method of contacting homeowners was appropriate.
“It was intimidating to knock on doors with a face mask, knowing that most homeowners would not be excited to find a surprise visitor on their doorstep,” Boyaris said.
She had the idea to focus on an area of River Forest that co-volunteers Kurt Etchingham and Jan Saeger had turned into an exterior-only housewalk during the pandemic. The group already had a connection to some of the homeowners and knew that many in the community would love a chance to see the interiors of the homes.
Homeowners were ready and willing to open their homes, and Boyaris says that many of the oldest homes in the village featured on the walk are newly owned by young families who are excited to share them and add a chapter the homes’ histories.
After considering more than 36 homes, the volunteers narrowed down their choices to seven and prepared to delve into the history.
“This is a classic beginning of River Forest story,” Boyaris said. “We haven’t done a tour like this in seven years, and our old housewalks focused only on the first owners of the homes. Now, we go up from the first owners to the present-day, and we’re finding some really good stories.”
The seven featured homes are all centered on the 500, 600 and 700 blocks of Keystone and Thatcher avenues, making for a very walkable tour. Four of the houses predate the founding of River Forest in 1880, with four built in the 1870s, one in 1895, one in 1900 and one in 1911.
The houses share the stories of families and include a two-flat built for a man’s mother-in-law, a home a father built for his daughter and another home that stayed in the same family for almost 100 years.
Two of the homes were built in the same era by close friends that might have looked very similar when they were constructed but differ significantly 150 years later. An E.E. Roberts designed-home is considered one of his studio’s finest works, and another home has been considered a River Forest landmark since it was built in 1876.
Boyaris notes that the Thatcher name runs throughout the stories as two separate Thatcher families owned and or lived in some of the featured houses.
The historical society aims to broaden the scope of their walks from just architecture to include the histories of people who once owned the homes, and this year’s crop of houses lends itself to a lot of interesting information.
“There are so many stories about these houses, in part because many of them are 150 years old,” Lipo said. “We like to put the spotlight on interesting past owners. Together, the people and the places tell the best stories.”
Before you go
The Oak Park River Forest Historical Society housewalk takes place Sunday, May 1 from 1 to 5 p.m. Tickets for the walk can be purchased in advance by calling 708-848-6755, online at oprfmuseum.org or in person in the gift shop of the Oak Park River Forest Museum, 129 Lake St. in Oak Park.
Tickets purchased in advance cost $30 ($25 for OPRF Museum members). Tickets can also be purchased the day of the walk at the River Forest United Methodist Church, 7970 Lake St., for $35. Face masks will be required inside the homes.