Call it a happy accident or call it fate. When Tom and his new wife, Mary Beth, stumbled upon an old rectilinear Queen Anne in Chicago’s Oak Park, in what is the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District, they had been looking for a piece of land to build a contemporary home. The year was 1994, and the newlyweds were fresh out of surgical residency, with bright-eyed ambitions of molding their first home to their streamlined, contemporary aesthetic. A large, one-acre property, consisting of a 7,500-square-foot main house and a 2,500-square-foot coach house with a century’s worth of history, was not exactly suited for two busy surgeons.
“We were driving around the neighborhood, and we saw an open house sign,” remembers the wife. “As we walked up to the house, we were impressed by the architecture, history and size. Once we were inside, we could see that it was very open, with lots of light. The rooms had great flow. We were overwhelmed by the historical detailing, including the woodwork and especially the expansive plate-glass windows, which carried the seamless transition from Victorian into the rectilinear prairie style aesthetic at the time it was built. We bought it because we fell in love.”
In many ways, the E. E. Roberts design — originally commissioned by prominent Oak Park banker Simpson Dunlop in 1894 — was ahead of its time. The three-story main residence blends the exuberant volumes of the Queen Anne style with the openness and handcrafted touches of the prairie style perfected by Frank Lloyd Wright, an adjacent neighbor at the time. On the outside, the architecture tells one story, with flattened surfaces in sharply angled roof gables and wide eaves, and the geometric form of the wraparound front porch flanked by Ionic columns. Inside the main house, the plot takes a contemporary turn with an open floor plan and expansive windows throughout, made possible by the development of plate glass.
“Despite its deep history, it lives contemporary,” says the husband of the home, which they have recently placed on the market for $2.25 million with Michael Kennelly of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Chicago. “It’s made for 21st century lifestyles. We have had amazing parties here. The open-air front porch is very deep, so even during thunderstorms, we’re protected. One of our favorite things to do is to enjoy a glass of wine on the porch and watch the world go by. We’ve even had dinner parties on the porch and used it as a main room for the festivities.”
Space is plentiful with six bedrooms. Light floods throughout the interiors, which have been thoughtfully renovated and restored over the years. All original plumbing, electric and gas services have been removed and replaced. Central air conditioning was installed on the first and second floors. A major kitchen renovation added an extension with double doors that lead to an elevated deck for outdoor entertaining and access to the backyard. Power lines to the property have been buried underground. The front porch was rebuilt with the addition of a slate roof. The attached screened-in porch was restored to a working greenhouse with a conservatory roof and farmhouse sink. A total of four full bathrooms and two half baths were renovated. Historical architectural elements unique to the home have been preserved wherever possible. Pocket doors long concealed within the walls were uncovered and rehung during the restoration process. All clear leaded glass “quarry” windows were restored or replicated. The original Brunswick bowling alley in the basement was restored and resurfaced. A wine cellar was built in the basement. A security system guards the house. The couple even completed a major structural renovation of the two-story coach house encompassing new electrical service and installation of a slate roof.
“The renovation was like a treasure hunt to us,” recalls the husband. “We preserved as much as we could of the original architectural elements, and we restored everything we could.”
Adds the wife: “When you own an old home, it’s important to care for it tenderly in order to preserve it. We felt as though we were preserving it for the next generation.”
And who will the next generation of homeowners be? If history is any indication, they may hail from the medical world. The last three homeowners have been physicians, including a doctor who outfitted the living room to deliver radiation therapy, and a husband and wife — a psychiatrist and psychologist — who transformed rooms into conference areas and offices for their practice and used one-way glass mirrors for observation of group therapy sessions by students. The property’s provenance gave the couple a greater sense of connection to the house.
“We hope the next homeowner respects the architecture and enjoys it as much as we have,” says the wife. “Stewardship of a historic home like this comes with great pride and great responsibility.”
As the couple prepares to leave the property and embark on their next adventure as “citizens of the world,” they consider themselves fortunate to have found such a jewel in the heart of Oak Park.
“It’s a grand property with a lot of land, yet it’s very comfortable and very private,” says the husband. “It has this rural setting landscaped with seasonal perennials, mature asparagus, apple trees, strawberries and a blueberry patch — and yet you’re just six miles from Chicago and the nightlife of downtown.”
The location, ambiance and historical character of the home make it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Kennelly. “It’s a very special property.”
Of course, whoever becomes the next steward of the Simpson Dunlop estate won’t need to be convinced of its singular qualities. It will be felt from the moment they walk in the door. Like the current owners, they will embrace the discovery made by all homeowners who fall in love with a historic home: for as much as you choose the house, the house chooses you.
For more information, call Michael Kennelly at 312-310-9855 or Michael.Kennelly@cbexchange.com.