A 1906 Arts & Crafts style home recently hit the market at 137 S. Humphrey in Oak Park. The house is a great example of Oak Park’s historic housing stock and is also notable for its ties to noted artist Chris Ware, a cartoonist who has been awarded numerous Eisner and Harvey awards, and whose book, Jimmy Corrigan: the Smartest Kid on Earth, won the Guardian First Book Award in the UK. Ware’s New Yorker covers often featured images of small-town life that looked a lot like Oak Park.
Before Ware and his wife Marnie took on the makeover of the house, it was just another of many homes in the village built at the turn of the 20th century. Like hundreds of houses in Oak Park and neighboring Austin, the house was developed by F.A. Hill.
Hill, according to his great-grandson Steve Hill, had an interesting life. His family emigrated from England to the U.S. in the mid-1800s. After a stint in New York, they moved to Chicago, where F.A.’s father worked as a tanner and a butcher. F.A. got his first job working in the meatpacking industry for P.D. Armour at the age of 13. By 1886, he was working as a commodities trader.
“The family story is that he lost $1 million as a trader,” Steve Hill stated. “At some point after that, he got involved in real estate. He started in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago where the area he developed was called Hill Town. Some of those houses were designed by architect Frederick Schock.”
F.A. Hill lived in Austin before moving to East Avenue in Oak Park with his wife and two children, Alfred and Grace. As an adult, Al Hill built the recently razed Hill Motor Company on Madison Street and was a Packard dealer.
Steve Hill said that although his great-grandfather had a lot of success in real estate, with offices in the city and in Oak Park, he is not well known.
The architect of the house on Humphrey is not known, and it is possible it was built on speculation. While many of the original details look fancy to modern-day eyes, they were catalog-ready purchases from the many businesses of the day that sold millwork and glass details.
The first owners were Anthony and Annie Reuter. Annie was a relative of the Schmitt family, who had purchased 121 S. Humphrey a few years prior to 1906. Anthony Reuter was a travelling salesman for a millinery company, Edson Keith. Following the Reuters’ tenure, the house changed hands almost a dozen times. Before the Wares’ purchase, the home had been in the same family for almost 40 years.
David Cihla of Cihla Realty, who is listing the homes for the Wares for $720,000, said that when the Wares bought the house in 2004, “Chris described the house as looking like a milk carton.”
The Wares took on an exterior makeover that earned them an Historic Preservation Award. They returned shingles to the exterior, chose period appropriate paint colors, and added a new roof and copper gutters.
On the interior, they honored the many original details that had survived the years. The entryway sports an original built-in bench and leaded glass windows. Pocket doors separate the double living room from the dining room. In the dining room, built in cabinets, fronted with leaded glass, flank a built-in bench with storage drawers.
Cihla said of the dining room’s woodwork and cabinetry, “For a spec house, those ain’t bad.”
In the kitchen, the original footprint and feel of the house were honored. A butler’s pantry with built in cabinets hides a modern refrigerator and microwave. The main kitchen has green tiled wainscot, a vintage Hoosier cabinet, an apron front sink and a 1940’s Chambers stove. A marble sink, original to the house, is tucked away near the original service staircase.
Cihla said of the rear staircase, “In most of these homes, these have been taken out.”
The front staircase to the second floor includes turned spindles. Doors on the landing and to some of the second floor’s five bedrooms feature leaded glass panes. Doors leading to the service stairs and the stairs to the finished attic space are decorated with intricately patterned fretwork that Cihla deems “almost Louis Sullivan-inspired.”
The hall bathroom on the second floor has been remarkably preserved and includes original tile, built-in linen storage, a pedestal sink and period medicine cabinet.
The Wares finished the attic space to make a studio and bedroom space. The historic feel continues here with ceiling beams and period-appropriate light switches and light fixtures.
Behind the walls, the mechanicals of the house from the wiring, the boiler, hot water heater and SpacePak air conditioning have been updated. From the surface the house looks more like 1906 than 2023. Cihla noted that it may take a special buyer to appreciate the historic nature of the house but said that for those who appreciate historic homes and architecture, this house is an unbelievable find.