Modernism in the heart of Victorian/Prairie Oak Park

David Hovey's townhome complex is a hidden gem on Maple Street

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

Long-revered for the architectural styles of over a century ago, Oak Park is a destination for architecture buffs interested in the Prairie style and early 20th century residential architecture. Countless articles and books have been written about Frank Lloyd Wright and his contemporaries who populated the near western suburbs with their then-innovative styles. 

More modern architecture in town, on the other hand, is often the work of nameless developers and rarely draws the attention of tourists. Tucked away on the 300 block of North Maple Avenue, a complex of townhomes has an architectural pedigree that might just be worth tourists' attention.

Designed by David Hovey, a Glencoe-based architect, the 16-unit building at Maple and Erie is a contemporary concrete structure whose three- and two-bedroom townhomes feature private garden spaces. 

Hovey, whose modern designs include the recently completed Optima Center in Chicago and Skokie's Old Orchard Woods residential complex, often builds his designs around walls of glass and simple structural frames. In 1978, the Illinois Institute of Technology-trained architect left his position at C.F. Murphy, where he worked with Helmut Jahn, to begin his own company, Optima, through which he designs, builds and markets his own projects. Hovey opened a second office in Scottsdale, Arizona, and his work there and in Illinois has been featured in Architectural Digest and the New York Times.

In Oak Park, owners of Hovey's townhomes, who range from recent empty-nesters to original residents, find the building's charms keep them firmly planted there for years.

San Utsunomiya has lived in the building since its 1981 construction. An architect himself (who worked for Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill), Utsunomiya was well acquainted with Hovey and his works. 

"David and I both worked with [IIT Professor] Arthur Takeuchi and did a school on the South Side of Chicago," Utsunomiya recalled. "We kept in contact after that. His first residential building was in Hyde Park, and I knew he was building this, his second, in Oak Park."

Utsunomiya, who also worked as a professor of architecture at IIT, noted that Hovey's business sense as well as his design sensibilities made him unique for the time period. Hovey acted as architect and developer for the townhomes, which gave him an edge in seeing his designs weren't diluted in the completed project.

"He was not only a good architect but a good businessman as well," Utsunomiya said. "He sped up the construction time using pre-fab, industrial materials. Mortgage prices were very high at the time, so to speed up sales, David brought down the price point of the units. As both the developer and the architect, he had a lot of flexibility that helped him do the kinds of buildings he wanted to do."

Utsunomiya recalled that when the condominiums first were offered for sale in the 1980s, prices started around $100,000 for three-bedroom units with some upgrades. This fall, one of the units listed for $445,000. 

Longtime resident Madeleine Raymond said that many people come to the building through friends, as she and her husband did. 

"People come to visit and see what the building has to offer, and say, 'If something ever comes up for sale, let me know.'"

Raymond, a volunteer docent with the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust and the Chicago Architecture Foundation, first saw the unit that would become her home when it belonged to a former colleague of her husband. After joking with him about letting them know if he ever planned to sell, they snapped it up when it went on the market, selling their single family home in Oak Park.

After over 30 years in the building, Utsunomiya, like many long-term residents, finds the central location hard to beat. He originally sought more room than he had in his city dwelling, and finding that here while also being able to walk to downtown Oak Park and the train for an easy commute to the city sealed the deal.

Raymond and condo board president Linda Liefer also found the location was a big draw when downsizing from their Oak Park single-family homes.

Noted Raymond, "It's so nicely located. It's right near the el and just blocks to the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio."

Liefer, who has lived in the building since 1998, said that a number of empty-nesters are drawn to the building for its proximity to downtown Oak Park as well as the units' unique features. 

"I'm an artist and work from home as an illustrator," she noted. "I saw the second floor bedroom view and knew I could draw there. The design of the space and the light were wonderful."

According to Liefer, Hovey followed the practice of architect Mies van der Rohe by including a "green room" in the living spaces. Each of the buildings' units has its own private outdoor garden space, a boon to residents. Originally, Hovey had a honey locust planted in each garden, but residents have modified their gardens to suit their individual tastes.

The simple white façade belies the innovative design features that were part of Hovey's original plans. 

"The reason for the open stairs," Utsunomiya said, "is to allow for circulation of air. Floor-to-ceiling windows also provide for cross-ventilation."

While outdoor hedges provide a sense of privacy from the street, the unique courtyards between units (open entry and open to the sky) provide a sense of community. 

Liefer noted that she and her husband recently began a tradition of hosting a summer solstice gathering in the courtyard. 

"My mission is to help the people stay connected," she said. "We're pretty much like a little village here."

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