They say the cobbler’s children have no shoes, and the old saying seems to fit this Homes reporter as well. As an Oak Park resident for 20-plus years and a Homes reporter for Wednesday Journal for more than 15, I was well aware of the opportunities residents have to delve into the history of their houses, but until recently, I never ventured too far beyond Google.

My one previous step of research had been looking up my home on the Oak Park village website, which has a number of resources for homeowners interested in historic preservation. 

Our house is located in the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District, so I was able to use the link to historic resources at ruskinarc.com/oakpark/oakpark to determine that my home was built sometime between 1920 and 1929 by the architects White and Christie. 

The database also listed the original owner as William Lees, the name of the house as William Lees No.2, and the style as colonial revival. Our next-door neighbor’s house, also designed by White and Christie, is listed in the database as the William Lees House No. 1 and was built between 1910 and 1919.

From my work at Wednesday Journal, I knew that White referred to architect Charles White, who briefly worked in Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio before going out on his own in 1905. His work dots the village and includes the Cheney Mansion and the Lake Street post office. 

This fall, I finally made an appointment with the Oak Park River Forest Historical Society at the OPRF Museum to see what I could find out about the history, architectural and otherwise, of my home. Rachel Berlinski had pulled relevant records for me and walked me through some basic research steps available to any local homeowner.

Phone and city directories as well as editions of the Oak Leaves and the Wednesday Journal, along with village permits, painted a more detailed history of the home.  In addition, the OPRF Museum maintains files of realtor listing sheets from the 1920s to the 1990s, and street files organized by block. The museum keeps a file of photos, and the Barclay Photo Collection includes photos taken by Philander Barclay of structures existing in 1903.

The owners of our house are not listed in local directories until 1922, when they are listed as Warren S. and Grace N. Corning. An Oak Leaves mention from Dec. 11, 1920 provides more detail. 

On that date, William Lees sold the house to Mrs. Grace Corning, the daughter of F.A. Hill, a well-known real estate broker. The listing describes a 60-by-175-foot lot, a two-story brick and stucco home with seven rooms, two bathrooms and a two-car garage. The home sold for $32,000.

In 1926, the owners expanded the garage, and in 1933, then-owner Chas. A. Walter sold the home for $15,500. An obituary shows that Walter, an executive at Sears Roebuck, died in 1944. 

There are no records indicating when the home next changed hands, but in 1954, the owner Otto Behimer had an apartment above the garage inspected. Behimer died in 1968, and his estate sold the home in 1970 for $37,900. 

The OPRF History Museum had in its files older photos of Sikora’s home, like the one above, which dates from the 1960s or 1970s, and shows how it once had an ivy-covered wall. (Courtesy OPRF History Museum)

In 1975, the owners Robert and Mimz Hick sold the house for $69,500. By 1976, the owners are listed as Malcolm Deam, who sold us the house in 2014, after his wife Catherine Deam’s death in 2013.

Berlinski points out that the village can be a good source for information on renovations and changes, as it maintains a history of building permits. Sanborn maps can also help pinpoint construction dates for many homes in the village. For those looking to ascertain chain of title, she says a visit to the Cook County Recorder of Deeds can provide records back to the time a lot was purchased.

While I hoped to find historical photos of our house, the museum only had two photos of our home, most likely from the 1960s or 1970s. It was nice to see that our choice of paint colors for the shutters aligns with what an earlier owner chose and sad to see two large trees on the front lawn no longer remain, but other than removal of a wall of ivy, our house today looks largely as it did in the past.

We’ve all seen those tongue-in-cheek plaques on buildings that read something to the effect of, “On this spot in 1920, nothing happened.” Such a plaque would be apt for the insignificant history of our home, but for us, finding out some of the details and imagining the lives of the people who lived here before us is significant enough. 

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