By Lacey Sikora
Oak Park's Gunderson Historic District comprises two areas of single-family homes and two-flat apartments in south Oak Park developed by the firm of S.T. Gunderson and Sons in the early 1900s.
On the east side of Gunderson Avenue, the four-block stretch between Harrison Street and Madison Street is filled with four-square homes that are part of the historic district. The west side of the street, which is not included in the historic district, includes a mix of architectural styles.
Unconstrained by historic district regulations, a new kid on the 800 block is continuing to further the architectural pedigree of the street in a very modern way.
Newly-built 809 Gunderson Ave. is the culmination of years of planning for Megan and Paul Root, who originally lived in Chicago's Ukrainian Village and loved seeing modern homes pop up in the area.
As a buyer for retailer CB2, Megan's design aesthetic leans toward modern, and Paul says that growing up in a decidedly not-contemporary home in Arlington Heights pushed him to become a devotee of new homes.
"My parents have lived in the same house since I was six months old," Paul said. "My dad was always working on the house. I remember telling my mom, 'I don't want to do that.' I wanted something new and done."
In their Ukrainian Village neighborhood, they noted the name of the architects of one of their favorite homes and discovered that Joe Trojanowski was an Oak Parker. They began an email exchange with the architect about working with him when they were ready to move on from their condo to the suburbs.
After the birth of their first son, they were ready to make the leap and connected with Julie Stanczak of @properties, who was a friend-of-a-friend and lived in Oak Park. Stanczak says that it was easy to sell Megan and Paul on Oak Park.
"They had been to our own house, also in the Gunderson District which we had rehabbed as well, and loved the neighborhood feel, with the block parties, neighborhood happy hours, kids playing in the front yards and walking to school together, and began to really hone in on that area," Stanczak said.
After looking at 40 to 50 homes, none of which quite fit the bill, they found the perfect makeover contender: a 1951 ranch house with two bedrooms, one bathroom and approximately 850 square feet.
"It was a block away from Julie, and she could vouch for the neighborhood," Paul said. "It was close to 290, which was great for Megan and blocks from the Blue Line, which was great for me."
More importantly, the house gave them the opportunity to start from scratch.
"It was not in the Gunderson District but across the street," Paul said. "The house didn't fit in with the rest of the neighborhood. It wasn't even a cool mid-century modern. Given the great location and the price point, it was great because there was no guilt in tearing it down to the foundation."
Paul acknowledged that the home was well-maintained, but it was perfect for transformation. The couple lived in the house for two years to save money for the new house and to work through the long process of planning a new build.
They reached out to Trojanowski and were delighted to learn he lived only five blocks away and that he was very familiar with the neighborhood, having worked on the recent renovation of the home of Seward Gunderson himself on Elmwood Avenue.
Paul says that sealed the deal.
"Not only did he do the super modern house we loved in the Ukrainian Village, but he also remodeled the original Gunderson house," Paul said. "He can do modern but also has a historic sense. It was the perfect combination of what we were looking for."
Once their plans were in hand, the actual construction was relatively quick. The Roots moved out for six months while the house was built. They took the house down to the foundation, but instead of a demolition, they performed a deconstruction of the 1950s structure. Everything that could be salvaged, from bricks to building materials were saved. While that deconstruction is move expensive on its face than demolition, Paul said it provides a significant cost savings as well as being better for the earth.
"We donated all of the old parts to the Rebuilding Exchange in the city," Paul said. "You get an appraisal value and can use it to get a write-off on your taxes. It saved us some money, and instead of stuff going to a landfill, it was reused and recycled."
Megan added that they utilized the Rebuilding Exchange in more ways than one.
"We went back to purchase materials for shelving for the kitchen and for the countertop in the powder room," she said.
Their new house is a modern rectangle that stands in marked contrast to the neighboring houses, but the Roots clad the house in a composite siding that recalls the clapboard siding of their neighbors.
The first floor has floor-to-ceiling windows, which flood the space with light, a decidedly modern design element, but the view of the older homes across the street provides what the Roots call a historic feel in a modern house.
The open concept first floor combines living, dining and kitchen spaces, and the upstairs include a master suite with walk-in closet and en suite bathroom as well as three bedrooms that share a hall bathroom.
On top of all this lies another modern touch. The Roots realized late in the game that their new home's flat roof provided the perfect place to install solar panels. They installed enough solar panels to power their entire house and then some.
An unexpected job opportunity is moving the Roots from what they planned to be their forever home for their family, which now includes two boys.
"We're incredibly sad to be leaving," Paul said. "We didn't build this house to flip it. We built it for ourselves and our two kids."
Stanczak had an offer on the house within days of listing it for $835,000. She noted that while their house's style may not be the norm for Oak Park, the modern sensibility is something a lot of young families are interested in.
"The finished product is amazing and so unique to Oak Park, it's a very appealing home to buyers moving from the city and used to new construction homes with high-end features," Stanczak said.
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