Riverside's 'boathouse' hits the market

Modern home atop 1890s structure affords great views, access to river

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

Locals call it the Boathouse, and current owner Jeff Baron says the sign designating it as such has been there a long time. 

While Baron and his wife created their own unique home on the banks of the Des Plaines in Riverside, he says the history of the home and the land it sits on goes back to the 1800s. 

"Former neighbors told me that it was part of the Rockefeller and McCormick estate that became part of the Brookfield Zoo," Baron said. "The original boat house and coach house were probably built in the 1890s."

When Baron and his wife, Gail Crossman, who died in 2018, purchased the Maplewood Road property, it consisted of a 1950s-era lannon stone ranch house and the boat house. The two were not looking to move. As he recalls, they were happily ensconced in another Riverside house when his wife entered a Chicago Tribune contest for homeowners looking to improve their houses. 

"My wife won, and included in the prize was a local realtor showing us comps in our town," he said.

As the realtor drove the couple around to look at houses priced comparatively to their current home, Baron says he didn't even get out of the car. He had no interest in moving. 

"Then, we got to this one on Maplewood. The realtor said it had a boat house, so I got out of the car," he said. "My wife went one way in the house, and I went the other, and when we met, we saw that view and said, 'We're buying this one.'"

He describes a 280-degree view of the river and the forest preserve that drew them in, and says they had a vision for what the house could be but didn't know how to realize it. They hired an architect to help them realize their vision and spent roughly two years creating the home of their dreams. 

Baron notes that the house won a Frederick Law Olmsted Society award, and the architect and landscape designer also won awards for the project.

"This house has a better resume than I do," Baron said.

Today, the roughly 4,600-square-foot house has three bedrooms and four bathrooms, and has been listed for sale for $1.5 million with Rory Dominick of Keller Williams.

Dominick says the house is a rarity in Riverside and beyond.

 "From a real estate perspective, it's the first time it's been for sale for 30 years," Dominick said. "Today, it's the only house that sits on top of the water."

The Barons sought to capitalize on the views and the relationship with the water when they built the house. They made sure that every room had a view. 

"We wanted to bring the outside in, so we used lots of glass," Baron said. "We wanted to bring nature into the house and also wanted the house to blend into the surroundings."

They took pains to highlight the home's proximity to the water throughout the interiors.

"We're both avid boaters and fishermen, so we tried to incorporate a water theme," Baron said. "We had a chandelier made from art glass for the entry by an artist who moved here from Scotland. The panes of glass look like clouds or sails on a ship."

Throughout the home they took care to think about the smallest details. The wrought iron throughout the house was crafted by another artist. When they couldn't find a fireplace surround that they liked, Baron's wife took a class in tile-making and created tiles with a water theme including sail fish and sea urchins.

On the exterior, a pond and waterfall as well as stone landscaping make the outside as unique as the inside.

"When you walk into this house, it's incredibly beautiful," Dominick said. "It's quiet and serene, but at the same time, it's a great house to entertain in."

She notes that the house isn't visible from the street, but the boat house's blue and white awnings can be glimpsed from the 31st Street bridge. 

"People talk about it a lot and wonder what it is," Dominick said. 

HGTV featured the house on a show called "Before and After," and the house has appeared on a local housewalk or two. In spite of its brush with Hollywood, many who enter are less fascinated by its notoriety and are more fascinated by the boat slips under the house that allow for exploring the river by kayak or canoe.

Baron says most local residents know the house as the Boathouse, and he recalls that when he was travelling in Italy years ago, he sent himself a postcard addressed only with his name and "Boathouse, Riverside, Illinois." The card arrived without a hitch.

Baron calls the home his wife's labor of love and says that building such a home is not for the faint of heart. As he describes three photos on the wall of the house, it's clear that it is his labor of love, too.

"The first photo shows a couple with parasols, the second shows the house when we bought it, and the third is from now," he said. "The photos were all taken from the same perspective over 100 years. It's pretty cool to see."

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