Every property has a story, whether it’s remarkable or not. Each home in our cover story has a history like no other, which makes them unique, desirable and easy to market. We talked to a variety of Realtors to find out about the intriguing histories that lie behind some of their most sought after addresses, and how these stories help to seal a sale.
By Lauren Drell
Ever wonder who used to inhabit that fancy listing you just scored? Maybe it was a famous designer, maybe a famous author or a local celebrity. Regardless of who it may have been, there are many homes throughout Chicagoland with a deep history. While many of these historical properties have been revamped, others have been preserved. Most everyone likes to hear about the history of their house, and while some of these properties glow with interesting facts and unique circumstances that have surrounded them – sometimes for years — buyers may find that they are indeed buying more than a house, but also a piece of history. Knowing these histories is a way to have a leg up on the competition, because oftentimes it is a story that can sway a client to make a purchase.
Take Mansions on the Park for example, a group of three historic single-family homes on the prestigious block of 900 North Dearborn St. in the Gold Coast, which overlook Washington Square Park. Built between 1888 and 1895, these mansions have been owned since the 1900s, and used as offices and a meeting space by the Scottish Rite Association. A significant history follows all three mansions, known as The Thompson House, The Taylor House and The Carpenter House.
The Thompson House is a Romanesque Revival mansion, designed in 1888 by the architectural firm of Cobb & Frost, the same firm that also designed the Newberry Library. The House boasts 10,041 square feet of space, with an adjacent two-story coach house. There are plenty of ornate touches, including one created by the original owner of the house, John Howland Thompson, an attorney who loved the Christmas holidays so much that he had sleigh bells carved in stone over the front canopy.
Just next door, The Taylor House, located at 919 N. Dearborn St., sits in the middle of the other two mansions. This four-story red brick city house, the only one of the three mansions still available for purchase, was designed for George H. Taylor in 1895 by the architectural firm of Treat & Foltz. Taylor was in the wholesale paper business and supplied newsprint for the local daily papers. Once renovated, The Taylor House will be 11,750 square feet and will have a three-car garage.
The Carpenter House sits on the end, next to The Taylor House, and embodies Midwest comfort, which rejects ostentatious ornamentation. The original owner, shipping-supply magnate George B. Carpenter, hired the renowned architectural firm of Treat & Foltz in 1891 to build him a mansion that would complement the surroundings of Washington Park. The home, built of brick with stone trim, embraces both Romanesque and classical architecture.
“The motivation to buy these three lovely mansions is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” says Millie Rosenbloom, a broker associate at Baird & Warner. “They have yards and multiple garages and have use of Walton on the Park … It makes life much easier for families.”
These three historic mansions, along with the adjoining Scottish Rite Cathedral, the nearby Newberry Library and the adjacent Washington Square Park – the second oldest park in Chicago, which stretches an entire city block – have been designated a landmark district by the City of Chicago.
While the homes are being sold in “as-is” condition, buyers will have the opportunity to customize the space to fit their needs. Since all three are part of a landmark property, tax credits apply. “Buyers of properties like these are people who have vision,” Rosenbloom says. Additionally, regardless of the changes a buyer may make, the homes will always have a rich history that the buyer can recount again and again to visitors, and perhaps another potential buyer one day.
The buyers that have already purchased the Thompson House and the Carpenter House from Rosenbloom cite a number of different reasons for making the investment. One of the buyers, a family man with several children who owns commercial real estate, along with grocery stores on the South Side, wanted something completely unique. The other buyer, an entrepreneur in the trading business, was looking to personalize. “He was looking to create his dream home,” she says. “Something that he could put his mark on.”
Shauna Wiet, chairperson of the Kane County Historic Preservation Commission and an agent with Miscella Real Estate in Geneva is also no stranger to holding listings with a history. In fact, she currently has a few that used to belong to some famous locals who have made quite a name for themselves in the past.
One listing, a 1940s center hall Colonial located in Geneva, was built by the owner of St. Charles Kitchens and his partners as part of a subdivision for GI’s after World War II. Another home with a history, a Civil War era cottage, was slated for demolition by the city of Aurora. Luckily, a group of concerned neighbors were able to save it from the wrecking ball and cranes, and went ahead and began rehabbing it, turning it into a single-family property, complete with a Jacuzzi tub.
Perhaps Wiet’s most famed listing can be found in Aurora’s Tanner Historic District. The “Garfield Goose House” belonged to the famed creator, puppeteer and co-host Bruce Newton and his wife, Claire, who were behind the Chicago kid’s icon Garfield Goose, the puppet that considered himself “King of the United States.”
Built in 1904, this late Victorian with a turret and wraparound porch was also the place where the set for the urban television dance show “Soul Train” was conceived, which took place in the dining room, where the Newton’s could be found cutting and painting designs with the help of their children.
“Claire and Bruce Newton were collectors, and the house was furnished as a museum with different theme rooms,” Wiet says. “The present owner has rehabbed the living space, but a walk-up attic, basement and office still exhibit the quirky decorating of the Newtons.”
Although the house has been updated, all of the original features have been retained including pocket doors, a butler’s pantry, stair detailing and original woodwork. For those who might like that added slice of memorabilia, there’s a letter from the builder to the original owner chastising her for complaining about the home’s Southern orientation after it was too late to change. Every one of these items can be used as a tool to make the house even that more appealing to a buyer.
According to Wiet, the buyers interested in these properties are typically younger and ready to take on a rehab project. The appeal is usually in the high ceilings, hardwood floors, large rooms, rich trim and built-ins. Of course, having a well-known previous tenant never hurts when making a sale.
“The home’s history is a feature that sets it apart and gives it a life,” says Wiet. “Owners all think their home is special, but this documents it.”
Lake Forest has its fair share of homes with a celebrated history. Remember the story of “The Great Gatsby?” Well, this tale, along with many others, may have gotten their start in one of Coldwell Banker’s broker associate Houda Chedid’s listings.
One of Chedid’s most prized listings, an 8.48-acre estate in Lake Forest, was designed by Howard Van Doren Shaw for Charles Garfield King. The story goes that King’s daughter, Ginevra King, was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great, unrequited love. As a young girl, Ginevra captured the heart of the famous author, and while Fitzgerald idolized her, he also longed to marry her. Following a visit in the summer of 1916 to her home at this now famous property, Fitzgerald realized that Ginevra and her family would always consider him “a poor boy,” and he would never gain acceptance into the high society world he wanted to be a part of, especially not in Lake Forest, which he later called “the most glamorous place in the world.” While Ginevra went on to marry John T. Pirie Jr., of the Carson Pirie Scott company, she lived on in Fitzgerald’s world, as it is said that Ginevra served as a model for Daisy Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby,” along with other characters in his famous writings, which include “Taps for Reveille” and “This Side of Paradise.”
Another home with an intriguing past, the Hardin House, has been through its fair share of transformations, which includes an English Library created by Howard Van Doren Shaw in the early 1900s. Most notable is the grouping of 10 stained glass windows, which were created and signed by famous artist Edgar Miller. This home took the better part of three years to restore, and features award-winning gardens and a granite cobblestone driveway, along with multiple kitchen workstations. The price for this historic home is listed at $11,995,000.
“The history of every home is so unique. I feel I am in living the past of these homes,” says Chedid, who holds a degree in art history. “I walk through and just imagine, the elegant lifestyle, the love it took to design and build these treasures and the unlimited budgets that each one of these homes were built with.”
The buyers for these homes tend to be highly intelligent and focused, according to Chedid. “They have studied the history of the property, they are aware of every detail,” she says. “They don’t move quickly; they think and analyze every aspect of their purchase.”
The Ritz-Carlton Residences, a modern classic residence-only building with 86 units located at Erie Street and Michigan Avenue, will illicit numerous stories as it is being built in the historic Farwell Building.
The 11-story Farwell Building represents one of the few remaining buildings left on Michigan Avenue from the 1920s, the period that transformed the residential Pine Street into “The Magnificent Mile.” Originally used as an office building where many of the lessees were doctors, including some psychiatrists, the Farwell building wasn’t granted city landmark status until early 2004. This French-inspired design, highlighted with both Art Deco and Classical Revival details, exemplifies the work of architect Philip Maher. Clad in limestone, the building features ornamental cast stone panels and a slate mansard roof.
In order to accommodate the Ritz-Carlton Residences, the exterior façade of The Farwell Building will be carefully dismantled, restored and reattached to a newly constructed building with modern structural and mechanical systems. The new construction will include energy-efficient windows, while keeping with the same design of the original architecture.
According to Rubloff sales associates Jane Shawkey and Rachel Bailey, these changes will be necessary because the structural framework of the existing building has deteriorated to a point to which necessary repairs cannot be undertaken on an economically justified basis. They point out that none of the original architecture and design of the Farwell Building will be changing. The project is scheduled for completion in 2010.
“From an exterior appearance, there will be no distinguishable modifications made to this landmark,” say Shawkey and Bailey. “Chicago is known for its diverse architecture and commitment to preserving it. Preserving The Farwell building provides another unique dimension to this project. It adds a history to a beautiful new building that allows residents to differentiate their home from the others and participate in a piece of Chicago’s legacy.”
Another location with a story to tell, Mallinckrodt in the Park, can be found in Wilmette. This 81-unit condominium community for active adults set on 14 acres of park, hence the name, will capitalize on its adaptive reuse history to interest buyers.
Mallinckrodt was originally created as a convent and college and designed by German immigrant Hermann J. Gaul, a prolific church and institutional architect of his time who trained with Frank Lloyd Wright and was responsible for St. Francis Hospital, St. Joseph’s school and more. The Sisters of Christian Charity, a Catholic order of nuns, had Mallinckrodt built as their North American “motherhouse,” or headquarters. A wealthy and distinguished family in 19th century Germany, the nuns started their mission by working with blind and preschool children.
In 1918, the State of Illinois granted the sisters a charter to operate Mallinckrodt College as a two-year school for teacher training, and in 1923, Mallinckrodt High School opened its doors. Although approximately 200 girls enrolled in the school each year, it closed its doors in 1960, after 37 years of educating. Not long after, Mallinckrodt College of the North Shore opened in 1968 to include roughly 300 students. In 1982, the college became a four-year school. In 1991, after merging with Loyola University of Chicago, Mallinckrodt College officially closed its doors. While Loyola University was leasing space during this time, the lease included an option to purchase the property by no later than mid-1999, which Loyola exercised in 1999, when it purchased Mallinckrodt. All of the sisters were relocated to Sacred Heart Convent.
“The Mallinckrodt has been a signature landmark of Wilmette history since the early 1900’s,” says Jim Murrin, real estate consultant for Koenig & Strey GMAC. “Many of the residents either taught or attended classes in this historical building.”
The location for Mallinckrodt in the Park was chosen because of the historical context of the building, and while the historical Renaissance of the exterior didn’t change, the interiors were updated, and the chapel was integrated into six units to include two penthouses.
“Buyers like the building for the uniqueness of the architecture and the quality of the constructions,” Murrin says. “The vast majority of the buyers have roots in the North Shore and love the location of the Mallinckrodt. In addition, the historical context of the landmark building is very appealing.”
Most all of the original artifacts and historical pieces, including a 7-foot high statue of the Virgin Mary (a gift from architect Gaul), were donated to various North Shore parishes or the Wilmette Historical Society.
While the aforementioned homes all make the task of creating a story simple, it is important to remember that every home has a history, even if it wasn’t previously inhabited by nuns or a celebrity. Even if your listing is a new construction project, there is still a story to be found in the land that it is being built on or the ideas behind the concept of the building itself.
Your job as a Realtor is to find that story, and make it just another reason for your buyers to make a purchase. Regardless of the home’s past, let your buyers know that with any purchase, they are getting more than just a home, as sometimes they are also getting a piece of history. C.A.
Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage Lake Forest
Koenig & Strey GMAC
Baird & Warner
Miscella Real Estate