New owners to breathe life into 1909 Wright home

Oak Park realtor, contractor help buyers realize landmark's potential

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

The Frank J. Baker House in Wilmette was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1909. Reportedly, Wright himself brought the plans to Baker in Wilmette via horseback. A co-founder of First National Bank of Wilmette, Baker also helped bring electricity to the North Shore while working for Commonwealth Edison. 

Eric and Amy Bauer purchased the home in October 2019 for $600,000. It last sold in 1957 to architect Walter Sobel and his wife, gallery owner Betty Sobel, who called the place home until their deaths in 2014 and 1999, respectively.

Oak Park realtor Jan Kerr listed the house for sale, and the Bauers brought in Oak Park contractor Pam Whitehead of P&P Limited to help them bring the house back to life. At roughly 4,800 square feet, the Prairie Style home is Wright's largest home in the suburb. 

According to Whitehead, the house has a lot going for it. 

"It's about two blocks from the lake, on a triple lot," Whitehead said. "The lot alone is worth a lot of money, but the house is a historic landmark, so you can't tear it down. It's pretty much in its original state."

Kerr first listed the house in July 2019 for $900,000, but prospective buyers struggled to see the potential in the house. Whitehead, Kerr's friend and former neighbor, said, "The kitchen was from the seventies, and there was an active leak in the roof. People had no idea how to live in this house."

Whitehead called on her frequent collaborator, Wilmette architect Mike Venechuk, and the two put together a floor plan and a prospective budget that Kerr could show potential buyers. Within two weeks, the house was under contract.

Barbara Gordon, executive director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, says that the organization was glad to see the house in the right hands. 

"The Frank J. Baker House is a unique and important representation of Frank Lloyd Wright's early Prairie Style," Gordon wrote in an email. "Constructed in 1909, it has a long and interesting history in the village of Wilmette. 

"Wright's architecture has recently been recognized as having World Heritage status, thus there is an imperative to the saving and caring for all of his existing houses. This is the only Wright Prairie house in Wilmette. 

"The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy offered the Bauers its assistance in learning about the house and caring for it shortly after they acquired the property. We were given the opportunity to review their rehab plans and our staff architect, board attorney and I spent an afternoon with Amy reviewing their intentions for the house. 

"Our board attorney convinced the Wilmette Historic Preservation Commission that the Bauers were absolutely the perfect new stewards for such an historic house and that their plans were exactly what the house needed to preserve its historic character yet making it livable in the 21st century."

The Bauers liked Whitehead and Venechuk's plans so much that the couple brought the contractor and architect on board to bring the house back to life. Whitehead said the house has great bones but needed a lot of attention. 

Rehabilitation will start with new HVAC service, wiring, plumbing, water and sewer service. Along with general old-house issues like knob-and-tube wiring and some leaks, Whitehead says animals had tunneled into the crawl space beneath the house to live. 

She also says that the house suffered from some structural issues that often plague Wright's work.

"There are wide expanses with lots of windows," Whitehead said. "They are beautiful, but they don't offer a lot of support." 

She adds that the living room's leaded windows are pushing out and need to be stabilized.

The Baker House is the first Wright commission for Whitehead, who left behind a corporate career to become a general contractor 18 years ago. Much of her work has been in historic homes in the Oak Park and River Forest area, but this one feels different. 

"After 18 years, I finally get to work on one," Whitehead said. "I'm super excited."

Likewise, Venechuk is looking forward to working on his first Wright house. He has worked on homes on the National Register of Historic Places before, but says there is something special about a Wright house.

"There's great light coming in. Right away, you know this is going to be fun," he said.

Venechuk notes that the project required jumping through a few extra hoops for permits and plan approval. 

"With a Frank Lloyd Wright home, there's more to consider," he said. "There's more local, national and even international interest in this home."

Venechuk says that the Wright connection has affected his approach to the project from the very beginning.

 "Usually, when I start a home, I go in and take measurements, and it takes me three to four hours for the entire house," he said. "This house took four days."

On top of making the house water tight and updating bathrooms, the major focus is a new kitchen. Like most Wright kitchens, the existing space has a low-ceiling and is dark. 

Venechuk says the ceilings are a bit below seven feet, and the plan is to pick up the feeling of the living room, which has 16-foot ceilings. 

Because the kitchen is on the rear of the house, Whitehead says they got approval to change some of the layout, and can raise the ceilings up two feet. 

The construction will take the house from five bedrooms to four, and will add a laundry room and guest bathroom to the second floor. 

Whitehead points out that a faithful restoration according to the strictest standards is not the plan, but stresses that the homeowners are keeping true to the feeling of the house, 

"They are doing a renovation to save the house, not a complete restoration," she said.

Whitehead notes that a faithful restoration can add a lot more time and a lot more expense to a project, something that very few have an appetite for. 

"For me, an old house is an old house," Whitehead said. "A lot of them were built better if they weren't Wright houses. An old house is an old house, and they all need the same thing."

Venechuk says the house was a treasure and will remain one when it is finished. 

"Every time I go in, I'm just amazed at what a presence it has," Venechuk said. "It needs a lot of work, but it's going to be beautiful."

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