They provide clues about our collective past, and are beautiful treasures of our region. Learn about the inventive builders of three such homes, and meet their current owners, dedicated to preservation.
“History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illuminates reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life and brings us tidings of antiquity.” ~ Cicero
History goes beyond the written or spoken word, the fleeting, ephemeral memory of a person or event. It’s corporeal, solid, concrete.
Reminiscences involve places.
“Whenever we took Grandma shopping, we would have to stop at Walgreens and have a vanilla shake at the lunch counter.”
“I had my first kiss on the steps of Mom and Dad’s back porch.”
How much more meaningful, how much more alive, are such memories, when we can return to the place of their happening.
Likewise, how much more meaningful, how much more alive, are communities’ histories, when we preserve the landmarks and structures of their happening.
Many cities in the Northwest suburbs are preserving their heritage by preserving their buildings, and not just as museums. Historic districts abound, encompassing neighborhoods of private homes, guided by preservation committees whose members assist owners in research and restoration.
“Our architectural landmarks show how unique we were,” says Grace Moline, chair, McHenry County Historical Society, located in Union, Ill. “They’re part of the fabric of a town. It may not be a ‘Lincoln slept here’ place, or the home of a founding father, but it’s still important.”
“We can learn from how people lived 100 years ago,” says Steve Stroud, a board member of the Elgin Area Historical Society in Elgin. “They were very green. They collected rainwater in cisterns. They lived off products of the land, and contributed back to the land when they were done. They bought locally, supported their neighbors. And their homes were works of art. We need to preserve all of that.”
Here are the stories of three historic houses and their owners.
Edward H. Cook House, Huntley
Owners: Todd & Claire Rutkowski
While construction clogs the busy highways leading into Huntley, its quiet brick streets hearken back to its beginnings. In 2011 alone, eight historic homes were acknowledged with plaques by the McHenry County Historical Society, along with the town’s Dairy Mart, built in 1955.
The Cook House, plaqued in 2009, was built in 1896 by the well-to-do Edward H. Cook, and the features reflected his status as co-owner of the hardware store; town pharmacist; funeral director; county coroner; village trustee; active member of Knights Templar, Freemasons, Oddfellows and several other organizations.
When Todd and Claire Rutkowksi purchased the old Victorian house in 2004, it was in rough shape. “The gutters were rusted out and falling off,” says Todd. “The paint was peeling. The porch columns were literally falling apart.”
“Inside wasn’t any better,” says Claire. “You turned on the faucet in the upstairs bathroom, and water came out in the basement. The ceilings, floors and walls all had water stains.”
But the couple decided on the house for several reasons, one being the “fixer-upper” price. “Because it needed so much work, we were able to get more house for the money,” says Claire. “We both love old things and antiques, and we’re very drawn to the Victorian style.”
Also, they had looked at quite a few houses and knew what was important to them. “No one had painted the woodwork downstairs, so that was a big selling point,” says Claire. “And for me, it was all about the wraparound porch.”
“For me, it was definitely the integrity of the main features – the woodwork, window frames, colonnades, leaded windows, hardware,” says Todd. “The realtor told us, in a resigned way, ‘Nothing’s been done to it in 30 years.’ And we looked at each other and said, in a positive way, ‘Nothing’s been done to it in 30 years.’ Nothing had been torn out or changed. There’s a difference between neglecting and ignoring. This house wasn’t neglected, but problems had been ignored. The architectural integrity was here. We just had to uncover it.”
The Rutkowskis researched the history of the house, to find indications of its original condition and look. “The people at the McHenry County Historical Society were very helpful,” says Claire. “They showed us how to use the archives, and we spent all day there. We found news clippings about the family and events here.”
The couple found one old photo of the house which they used to reconstruct the porch railing. From old paint chips, they determined that the house had been a light shade of green popular in that era, so they chose a sage green for the exterior.
During the restoration, the couple tore off five layers of wallpaper and removed several coats of paint from the walls. They ripped up old carpeting – some of it shag – revealing beautiful hardwood floors downstairs.
All of the window pulls, doorknobs, plates and latches, pushbutton light switches and transom window hardware were intact. The couple removed them, took them apart, restored each piece, and put them back – not as easy as it sounds.
In the rafters of the carriage house, buried in an old wooden apple crate under some newspaper, Todd discovered a box of drapery hardware that was rusted and discolored. “We brought the box in, started looking at the windows, and found holes in the woodwork that matched the hardware exactly,” he points out. “We sent the drapery brackets off to be cleaned and rebrassed, and now they’re back where they belong.”
The couple did most of the work themselves. “I was buying and restoring old buildings in Chicago, so it wasn’t a new thing,” says Todd.
“We’re both really hands-on,” adds Claire. “I’m not a carpenter, but I can peel wallpaper and pull out old carpeting and paint walls. I sewed all of the drapes myself.”
Another fun discovery was the overmantel for the top of the fireplace. “We both kept saying it looked too square and mission-style for the house,” says Todd. “We’d seen this decoration in the rafters in the attic, but we didn’t know what it went to. Then one day it just came to me. I brought it downstairs and held it up on top of the fireplace, and it was obvious that’s where it went. So now that’s back where it belongs.”
With all they’ve learned, the Rutkowskis offer two pieces of advice for others considering the purchase and restoration of an historic home.
“Be extremely patient,” Claire says.
“And nothing is ever easy,” Todd adds.
But, they say, it’s worth it.
“The most satisfying thing is seeing the place come back to life,” says Claire.
“We’re stewards of this house, and how many people can say that?” comments Todd. “We took possession and cleaned things up and let the house breathe. And it will last another 100 years. It’s a great house, and it deserves to be taken care of.”
Ford House, Aurora
Owner: Sidney K. Robinson
Established in 1834, Aurora today has 17 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as three historic districts. While its roots run deep, it has always been a progressive city.
A lingering representation of that progressiveness can be found near Aurora University, in a southwest neighborhood which boasts a fair number of examples of mid-century modern homes. The most well-known is the round, Bruce Goff-designed Ford House, completed in 1951. Today, Sidney K. Robinson is its ninth owner, and he’s lived here twice as long as any of the previous owners. He purchased the home in 1986, and the only changes since it was built are new countertops and a new covering on the built-in circular seating around the fireplace.
The house’s footprint is a 50-foot diameter circle, with two semi-circles on either the side, which serve as bedrooms – a total of 1,800 square feet. The entire west side of the house is glass. In the center, the patinaed brass fireplace chimney reaches to the top of the dome. An open second level is accessed on either side by a floating stairway. The structure’s curved orange steel ribs are visible in front only on the inside, and extend out into the backyard, forming a kind of open-air atrium. The curved walls are made of cannel coal, with large chucks of green glass cullet and various colored marbles inserted for contrast, color and light.
Features of the house demonstrate Goff’s philosophy of “space moving inside and out.” On the interior, along the black wall, the groupings of the slag glass glow with sunlight. “These aren’t the same glass pieces in this position on the outside,” Robinson explains. “There are actually two walls, exterior and interior. Goff lined up the glass on both walls, to allow natural light in.”
On an upper outside balcony, Robinson leaves the door open and points out the reflection of the outside ribs on the glass. “Now look through the door,” he instructs with a grin. “The reflections line up perfectly with the inside ribs. You look at it, and it’s hard to tell what’s in and what’s out.”
Robinson himself is an architect who’s spent most of his career as a teacher and an author of books on architectural history. Retired from the University of Illinois at Chicago, he’s currently a faculty member at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture at Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wis. He bought the house because of his background.
“I realized, as an architect and teacher, that this was a chance to live in an extreme example of architecture,” Robinson says. “It does two things that aren’t often thought of as being in agreement. It’s very stimulating and very calming at the same time. Stimulation comes from colors and textures. Calming comes from circular geometry.”
Above the coal wall is cypress planking, arranged in a kind of herringbone pattern which mimics the curve of the steel ribs. Fresh air comes in through ventilation louvers, installed behind wood trim where the wall and roof meet. Also here, for ambiance, is a strip of neon lighting, used because fluorescent tubes don’t bend.
The house was commissioned by Albert (Sam) and Ruth Ford. Sam was a civil engineer and Ruth was an accomplished artist and sought-after teacher at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. While the home was being built, the unusual round design drew a maelstrom of criticism down on its owners. Gawkers referred to it as “the beehive,” “the coal house,” “the umbrella house.” Ruth had a reputation as an eccentric, and the couple responded by erecting a sign that read, “We don’t like your house, either.”
Robinson’s authentic mid-century modern home is filled with authentic mid-century modern furniture.
“People ask me, ‘Are you a collector?’” he says with a wry smile. “I’ve never collected anything. I laugh and tell them, ‘This is the furniture I grew up with.’” He pulls out a black-and-white photo and lays it on the table in front of his fireplace. It shows a toddler holding himself upright on a table that holds a chocolate cake decorated with a single candle.
“That’s me, on my first birthday, and this is the table in the picture,” he points out. “It’s an Alvar Aalto, built pre-World War II. All of the tables are Aaltos. Everything here belonged to my parents.”
Robinson has no plans to move, but has made arrangements to ensure that the house remains in its original form and used as a residence. “I’m signing a preservation easement, which basically requires that any future owners agree to those stipulations,” he explains. “I didn’t initially have the sensitivity to historic perseration that I do since living here,” he says. “Architects make new things. And preservation was a cultural and political movement in direct response to modernism. Modern isn’t valued, but since anything that’s 50 years old is subject to preservation, this house qualifies.”
Robinson has written several books dealing with organic American architecture, the movement pioneered by Frank Lloyd Wright; Goff was a follower of that movement, and the house is a concrete example.
“It provides a context to ordinary life that causes you to be more conscious of everyday activities,” he says. “Even when it recedes, it’s still apparent, like cooking dinner in a circular kitchen.
That’s why I want to participate in who gets it next. It’s not a real estate investment – it’s a piece of art. Even if someone offered me lots of money but didn’t appreciate it for that, I wouldn’t sell it.”
I.C. Bosworth House, Elgin
Owners: Dan and Pat Miller
Elgin has eight individual buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, along with four historic districts and a golf course. This home was built by wealthy businessman Increase C. Bosworth, president of the First National Bank of Elgin, around 1875. It’s located in Gifford Park, an active historic district named for Elgin’s founding father.
Dan and Pat Miller, now retired high school teachers, bought the greatly altered, run-down Italianate-style home in 1986 and restored it themselves over a period of 12 years. They spearheaded the preservation movement in their neighborhood and instigated the house walk that’s now 30 years old.
Surprisingly, the Millers kind of stumbled into historic preservation. “We married in the seventies, and we were trying to furnish our first home,” Pat explains. “Everything new at that time, it seemed, was chrome and glass and artificial-looking and very expensive. So we bought old things at garage sales and cleaned them up, and that’s how we furnished our first home – and every one after that.”
Dan had purchased an 1892 Queen Anne home in 1975, the year before the couple married, and Pat helped to rehab it. After they married, the couple continued to buy and refurbish antiques, even selling some at flea markets.
“In buying an old house that needed fixing up, we discovered, like with the furniture, that the quality and craftsmanship were excellent,” says Pat. “The more you work in an old home, the more you discover its true character. You don’t want to throw things away. You want to bring them back to life.”
“So we got into old houses, and we became active in the neighborhood association beginning in 1979,” says Dan.
“When we first became aware of this house, it wasn’t even for sale,” says Pat. “It had been subdivided into five units, and the owner wanted to tear it down for a parking lot. We didn’t want to buy it, but we got involved in saving it.”
The house was far from its original condition. The finish was gone from the hardwood floors. Closets had been converted into small kitchens and bathrooms. False ceilings and extra walls had been installed. Outside, the ornate front porch had been removed and the exterior covered in stucco.
But the more Pat saw of it, the more she began to sense its potential. “During our 11 years in the Queen Anne, we had bought and rehabbed another, as an investment,” says Dan. “So we sold that and our first house, and we bought this one, our dream home.”
The day they closed, the couple came in and poked through added walls and discovered, in the second parlor, elaborate plaster cornices that had been covered by a false ceiling. “We bought it because of the features that were intact, like the fireplaces and plaster molding,” says Pat. “We knew there had to be more, and we were thrilled to find it.”
There was no main kitchen, so the Millers kept a small apartment kitchen on the second floor, which they used from 1986-1990, lugging groceries up 35 winding steps. “Our friends thought we were nuts for not putting in a kitchen sooner, but things need to be done in order,” says Dan. “Buckets in the attic mean you have to do the roof. The bid was $12,000. Materials were $2,000. So I researched it, put in good toeholds and did it myself.”
The single, 300-amp, piggybacked screw-in fuse box demanded that electrical follow the roof. “We pulled 7,000 feet of new wiring through these walls,” says Dan.
They could find no photographs of the house, but they researched in the library and at the county plat office and located lengthy obituaries in old newspapers that provided some detail.
“Architecture was another issue,” says Dan. “So much had been changed, and we had nothing to go on. So we studied Italianate porches all over the nation. When we go on vacation now, we take pictures of architecture, not landscapes.”
Their biggest break in recreating the porch came when they removed the stucco. “Wherever the porch had touched the house, we found clear shadows,” says Pat. “Dan is a carpenter, so he was able to copy those shadows and exactly replicate the architectural features.”
Whatever they couldn’t replicate, they scavenged and salvaged. “Pat found one complete doorknob set in the basement,” says Dan. “We could tell from the marks on the doors that it went with the house. So she carried it in her purse for years, and at every garage sale and flea market, she’d hunt for matches. She eventually found a matching set for every single door in this house.”
The wooden blinds in the sitting room were salvaged from a mansion in Marengo, and they fit to within an inch. Some doors, furniture, fixtures and trim are also salvaged pieces.
“We did 99.99 percent ourselves,” says Dan. “As teachers, we had time. And ultimately, it was much less frustrating. A lot of it involved me holding something up and saying to Pat, ‘Is this how you want it?’ We evolved into do-it-yourselfers, and we worked shoulder to shoulder through the entire process.”
Over 30 years, the Millers have restored three homes entirely by themselves, assisted with four in the neighborhood, and helped to salvage 60. Seeing so many splendid houses that had been stripped of their original trappings and treated poorly – staircases removed or walled off to create a multi-family dwelling, for example – was a driving force for the Millers.
“People take something that an architect created as a thing of beauty and change it for the worse,” says Dan. “It’s like defacing art.”
“So we became zealous preservationists,” says Pat. “The structures must be taken care of. Respect the building style. Respect the past.”