When the 1920s still roared and money flowed, radio mogul William Grunow took his newfound wealth and built a palace in River Forest. Although the 24,000-square-foot, 24-room, English Tudor-style mansion at 915 Franklin Ave. is best known as the former home of mob boss Tony Accardo, the "Big Tuna" just parked there with his buddies for eight years. It was Grunow who gave Jay Gatsby a run for his money when he built the opulent estate.
On Saturday, Sept. 17, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., the home will be open for tours to benefit the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest. On display will be the extensive restoration and renovation undertaken by the current owners over the last three years.
The property had lost some of its luster when the couple purchased it five years ago with an eye to restoring Grunow's vision (and adding a bit of their own).
"It was a white elephant when we came, in need of work and restoration," says one of the owners who, with her husband, prefers to remain anonymous. "It's a work of art, and we wanted to give it back its dignity."
The project included adding a large family room and enclosing a massive patio, as well as uncovering bas-relief friezes, intricate stenciling, elaborate wall medallions, miles of mahogany paneling and gilded brass banisters that had been hidden under white and black paint. Along with making the many necessary repairs and updates (seven separate air conditioning units are required to cool the house, for example), the owners employed an artist for most of a year to paint all the decorative elements.
When the Historical Society began looking for homes for its second annual housewalk fundraiser, the Grunow/Accardo house "was high on our list," says board member Jean Guarino, co-chair of the event. Guarino sent a letter to the homeowners?#34;one of a number of solicitations she sent to owners of homes being considered for what she thought would be a traditional housewalk in River Forest?#34;and they responded by inviting her over for a look-see. Once inside, Guarino "quickly realized [the Grunow/Accardo house] stood alone?#34;it would take as much time to walk through this house as it would seven others," she recalls.
Deciding to switch gears for a one-house tour, Guarino and company made their pitch to the homeowners. "We invited them to the Historical Society," she says. "We presented ourselves as we are?#34;a poor non-profit. They were impressed," and agreed to participate in the fundraiser, says Guarino.
It's a huge undertaking, involving about 100 volunteers. Tour guides will take groups of 10 or 15 people through the first floor and basement (hardly an appropriate word for a space that includes a full-sized pool, English pub and two-lane bowling alley). Volunteers will also be stationed in each room, to point out details and answer questions. Guarino expects the tour to take about an hour.
This is a "once-in-a-lifetime" chance to go inside a home that's never been open to the public before and likely won't be again, she says. Because a sellout is anticipated, with ticket sales to be capped at 1,200, Guarino strongly suggests making reservations well in advance.
Tickets are $25 for Historical Society members, $30 presale and $35 at the door. All proceeds will help fund the society's operating expenses. Reservations, which will end on Wednesday, Sept. 14, or when the cap is reached, can be made by calling 848-6755.
To keep the lines down, ticket holders will be asked to show up during a two-hour period. Expect "ghosts" of Grunow and Accardo to entertain those waiting to enter. The home isn't handicapped accessible and children under 12 won't be admitted. High heels, interior photography, cell phones and large backpacks won't be allowed.
A peek inside
Through the iron gates, past statues of Ben Franklin (a nod to the street name?) and religious figures, beyond the massive front door, visitors to the Grunow/Accardo house step into a dramatic, two-and-a-half-story foyer. The ceiling is filled with a brightly painted bas-relief of flowers, fruit, violins, harps and brooms.
The bas-relief hides a screen. Music from an organ built into the "grand room" was once piped through the screen via a compressor in the attic.
The walls are mahogany; curved doors and wall medallions depict scenes from Greek mythology. The grand staircase includes a wrought iron and brass banister and walnut stairs, all stripped and rebuilt under the direction of the current owners.
They are a couple with grown children and a grandchild. They run a family business together, and since both grew up in large families, their extended network of relatives regularly gather here.
During an advance tour, the wife explains that the aim of the restoration has been to return the home as close to its original state as possible, while making it livable for a modern family. "My husband wanted to bring back what Grunow left," she says.
The home was built by Buurma, "Dutch carpenters known for their meticulous woodwork," says Guarino. The company is long out of business, and no records remain.
On the first floor, the dining room, library and grand room are all accessed from the central foyer. In the mahogany-paneled library, with its stone fireplace and stenciled ceiling beams, a bit of Accardo's legacy remains?#34;a small round table, bought from the Accardo estate by a friend of the current owners, was given to them as a housewarming present when they moved in.
The 40-by-25-foot grand room features restored mahogany walls, a cherry parquet floor, floor-to-ceiling windows, two original crystal chandeliers and the original (now non-functioning) organ. A bas-relief brocade on the ceiling is painted gold, and connects four medallions, each showing a scene from Greek mythology, that anchor the four corners of the room. Above the fireplace is a carved head of Mercury.
Another remnant of the Accardo years is the initials "AA" engraved in the brass fireplace screen.
The room is overwhelming, even for its owner. "For Christmas or New Year's we'll sit in here for a while," she confesses. Otherwise, it remains largely unused.
The family actually hangs out in the newly-built family room, beyond the modern kitchen and breakfast room redone by a previous owner (after Accardo). Formerly an open courtyard, the family room has terra cotta walls, leather furniture, skylights and a high, curved ceiling where a portion of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel?#34;the Creation of Adam and the Creation of Eve?#34;has been replicated, complete with quotations from Genesis.
When asked, our tour guide says that she decorated her home herself, taking time to find "just the right stuff. I see it in my head, envision it, then look for it. I know it when I see it."
A powder room on this floor is an original, art deco extravaganza. Iridescent green tile is bordered by figures and designs from Greek mythology. There's a green onyx sink and original chandelier, and a separate dressing area that features a mirrored vanity flanked by stenciled cabinets with Wedgwood handles.
In the lower level of the home, there's a full-sized, indoor pool, surrounded by dazzling, blue mosaic tiles. Swordfish are mounted on the walls now, replacing what was reported to be a huge tuna caught by Accardo (hence the nickname). It was removed by a previous owner.
Also down here is an English pub/billiard room that can easily seat 50 guests. It has original walnut-paneled walls, a timbered ceiling, a fireplace with a stone mantel, and plaster friezes of hunters and dogs chasing a fox. From this room, doors lead to a two-lane bowling alley, built with parts too obsolete to be restored, according to the owner. Replacing it "is on the back burner," she says.
With the rest of the work done, the owner says it "feels great to be finished." What's it like to live in a place like this?
"We appreciate it every day," she says. "Who would imagine we would have something like this?"