Renovation reclaims 1906 home's historic grandeur

It took 20 years, but much-altered painted lady again looking sharp

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

Tucked into the Gunderson Historic District south of I-290, the house located at 1023 Wenonah Ave. is not a Gunderson design, but a distinct Victorian that stands above the rest of the block with its three-story profile. 

Distinctive arches and a welcoming porch face the street, and the home looks much as it might have 100 years ago. Like many Oak Park homes, it took some restoration to get to that point. 

The house had seen a lot of changes, some better than others, and was ready for a bit of TLC when Tim and Sarah Cooke purchased it in 1999. They began a restoration project that would span almost two decades and bring the house back to its original glory with a few added 21st-century touches.

In their research into the home's background, the Cookes discovered the 1906-era home was designed by Albert Ernst, who owned a lumber company in Forest Park. Ernst and his wife, Kitty, lived in the house until roughly 1920. The next owners were the McBride family, who converted the home into a two-flat during the Great Depression. 

Tim Cooke says the house was used as a two-flat until the 1960s.

"The owners before us moved in in the sixties, and they didn't change the configuration, but they didn't use it as a two-flat. It was really broken up. There wasn't good flow," Cooke said of the altered layout which had guests travelling through a bathroom to access the basement and created a lot of small, chopped-up rooms.

The back of the first floor consisted of a series of rooms, including a sewing room and an office, and the kitchen was small. In 2003, the couple decided to renovate the kitchen. "We wanted to expand it and to make it more modern," Cooke said. "We also wanted to bring the house back to its starting point."

To do so, they reconfigured the foyer and the front stairs and broke through a wall separating the kitchen area from the front of the house. In removing the walls, they discovered parts of the original staircase to the second floor and found pocket doors in the wall.

"For us, it was really good justification that we were doing the right thing," he said.

There was also an unexpected benefit to opening up the walls. 

"The house had been really dark," Cooke said. "We opened up the wall, and it turned from a dingy living room into a light-filled room."

The couple called on a chef friend for ideas to lay out their new, larger kitchen space. The resulting cabinet layout makes the room ideal for cooking. They also took advantage of the opened up rear space to add an eat-in table in a half-circle attached to the island. 

The family of four took some time off from renovating after returning the first floor to its single-family home layout. Three years later, they were ready for the second phase of construction and turned their eyes to the upstairs. 

The large room at the front of the second floor had been used as an apartment living room and included a fireplace flanked by built-in shelves. At the back of the second floor, a bedroom had been turned into a kitchen.

The Cookes reconfigured the former living room to create a master bedroom, renovated the hall bathroom and added a second-floor laundry room. They also took out the kitchen and returned the second floor to three bedrooms. With the second floor returned more or less to the original Ernst plan, the Cookes kept going. 

"The attic was completely underutilized space," Cooke said. "It felt like a ballroom with the open rafters. We spent quite a bit of time with contractors trying to figure out what to do with the space."

The final plan included building a new staircase from the second to the third floor and creating an attic master suite with its own bathroom, desk and sitting area and walls of storage space. 

"We added 700 square feet of living space without having to add onto the house," Cooke said.

The Cookes' 20 years of efforts didn't stop with the first through third floors. They also restored the exterior of the house, removing brown asphalt siding and restoring and painting the clapboard in historically appropriate colors. 

They also went below ground and rehabbed the basement, which includes a full bath, second laundry room, family room and a wine room. For all of their efforts, the Cookes obtained historic landmark status for the home.

Now that their two children have left the house, the Cookes are continuing another Oak Park tradition and are looking to downsize.

Kathy and Tony Iwerson of @properties, the same realtors who helped them buy the home in 1999, have the listing. The house is listed for $799,000, and the Cookes hope another family will be able to move right in and make it their home, no renovations necessary.

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Mary Pikul  

Posted: October 13th, 2019 9:17 AM

Amazing renovation! I enjoyed reading this. I would love to read more articles about Oak Park/River Forest home renovations. I find it super interesting. I also think the price for this home is a bargain - for all the updated work and quality wood in that home. A bargain.

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