Making the most of a mess

Oak Park Victorian gets a new porch, and an award

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

It's the stuff of most homeowners' nightmares: a big storm and a big tree collide, with the storm coming out the winner and the house coming out the loser. 

New Oak Park homeowners Dan and Rachel Stark were less than thrilled when an autumn storm downed a tree right onto the porch of their 1898 Victorian on Home Avenue. Dan, evidently more of a glass-half-full than half-empty kind of guy, chose to take the incident in stride. 

"It was the day before Halloween in 2017," he said. "We actually feel lucky that it wasn't Halloween, when our porch would have been full of trick-or-treaters. No one was hurt."

The porch was a total loss, and the Starks took the opportunity to rebuild it in a way that more closely matched the home's original porch. The couple had owned the home for about eight months and had been slowly researching their home's history.

 "After we bought the house, we took a day off work to do research on it," said Rachel Stark.

The couple went to the Oak Park Library and then on to the Oak Park River Forest Historical Society and turned up quite a bit of information on the house. 

Dan remembers that the real estate listing when he and Rachel purchased the home listed the home's build date as 1902, a date their research proved to be a bit fuzzy. 

An Oak Leaves article dated October 1898 detailed a gathering held by Arthur Durant Whipple and his bride Mabel in their new home at 400 Home Ave. A newspaper advertisement dated March 1920, had those original owners listing the house for sale.

For Dan, researching the historic newspapers proved an entertaining exercise. 

"If you go through these old newspapers, it's like Facebook of that time," he said. "There are so many details about social events, weddings and parties."

Rachel noted that all of their research was made easy by the staff of the historical society. 

"We made an appointment with the historical society, and the way they handle this is just awesome," she said. "You tell them where you live, and they ask about your goals and then pull a lot of material for your visit. I'm so grateful to the people who do this. It was so helpful to us."

While some of the historic data does not include house numbers or street names, Rachel Stark noted that the historical society archivists were still able to tie in data to their house. 

"They do this painstaking work," she said. "Even with no house numbers, they found pictures of our house."

Armed with a photo of the house, the Starks turned to contractor Pete Thomas of Thomas Restoration to rebuild their porch. Dan recalled that Thomas was really happy to have the historic photo to guide their plans, as the porch that had been destroyed differed quite a bit from the original structure. 

"I don't know how many times the porch had been replaced, but they'd cheaped out on the columns and changed other details," Dan said.

Thomas looked to the interior columns in the home, which are original, to provide details that the photos could not and reconstructed the porch to closely resemble the historic photo. 

The Starks' restoration work recently earned them a Historic Preservation Award from the village, and Susie Trexler, Oak Park's urban planner for historic preservation, says much of that is due to their reliance on that photo.

"The awards committee was particularly impressed by the homeowners' use of a historic photograph to restore the porch to its original appearance," Trexler wrote in an email. "Restoration alone takes time and dedication, but using historic documentation and following through to restore details such as the fluted columns is impressive."

Dan Stark says the entire project was serendipitous in many ways. 

"It's amazing that we did this research project, and that it ended up having a practical application," he said.

For Rachel, the tree falling on the porch turned out to be boon for their home, though she didn't see it that way at first. 

"At first, I was so mad that this happened, but it turned into something great as the porch came along," she said.

Historic Preservation Awards for 2019

Trexler says that the nomination period for Historic Preservation Awards for 2019 is now open and available on the village website. Nominations are open to the public, but she said that there are several qualifications that need to be met.

The preservation project has to have occurred within the last five years and should fall into one of five categories: adaptive use, new addition, rehabilitation, restoration or sustainability. Projects can be in residential or commercial buildings and do not have to be located in a historic district.

Winners are chosen by a committee consisting of professionals in preservation-related fields from the greater Chicago area. 

Anyone with questions regarding the process can email historicpreservation@oak-park.us.

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