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Quirky Side of Ravenswood Manor Shines During Tour of Neighborhood 'Gems'

By Patty Wetli | August 27, 2014 6:54am
 Architectural gems in Ravenswood Manor, listed in the Chicago Historic Resources Survey.
Gems of the Manor
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RAVENSWOOD MANOR — The streets of Ravenswood Manor are lined with beautiful homes, but only a handful of them are gems.

Semi-technically speaking.

"Gems" is the Ravenswood Manor Improvement Association's shorthand for buildings recognized by the Chicago Historic Resources Survey as "significant in the context of the surrounding community," said Athene Carras, a Manor resident and architect who led a recent "Gems of the Manor" walking tour as part of RMIA'S ongoing centennial celebration.

The first gem on the route: the Manor's oldest building, the Francisco Brown Line station. Constructed in 1907, the station pre-dates all of the neighborhood's homes.

"It's part of the reason Ravenswood Manor exists," Carras said.

Patty Wetli says the Ravenswood Manor walking tour offered a look at many of the nieghborhood's "hobbit" homes:

In 2005, the station was slated for demolition by the Chicago Transit Authority as part of the massive Brown Line renovation project, but the community stepped in and ultimately won their fight to preserve the building.

"It's all original except for the door," which was widened to meet ADA standards, Carras said.

Nothing Else Like It

The rest of the buildings on the tour were all private homes (see slideshow). Not necessarily the swankiest, largest or most expensive houses in the neighborhood, most of the gems were singled out for architectural features that set them apart from other homes in the Manor — like the Japanese-influenced, Arts & Crafts-style house at 2835 W. Eastwood Ave., which boasts a pair of enormous concrete piers.

Tucked away along the Chicago River, behind a high fenced-in hedge at 2748-50 W. Wilson Ave., sat a Mediterranean-style villa featuring east and west wings connected by a central courtyard. The house is actually two residences, Carras pointed out, designed to accommodate separate branches of an extended family.

And then there was a rather ordinary looking bungalow at 2739 W. Windsor Ave., revealed, upon closer examination, to have three rooflines, each set further back from the facade. Oh, and the house's architect also did some work for a guy named Al Capone.

The CHR survey — conducted between 1983 and 1995 to categorize the historic and architectural importance of all of the city's buildings constructed prior to 1940 — did have a few surprises up its sleeve, though.

Ravenswood Manor's most iconic house — referred to by residents simply as "the Manor house" — is not  a neighborhood gem, no explanation given.

"The whole notion of the survey is kind of capricious," Carras said.

Sensitive to History

The Schmidt-Newell House at 4500 N. Mozart Ave. is the gem most likely to stop passers-by in their tracks.

The stunning oddity, which dates back to 1927, is immediately recognizable thanks to a unique brick detail known as "weeping mortar." Rather than swipe away excess mortar, the masons who built the house allowed it to ooze between bricks. On purpose.

The technique, a Tudor-esque flourish more commonly employed in the English countryside, gives the house a textured look. Red brick lintels, a diamond pattern on the chimney and a concrete shingled roof lend additional architectural interest.

In researching the house's history, members of RMIA's tour committee unearthed the original permit, which listed the home's construction costs at $10,000 — or $132,000 in today's dollars.

The current owners, who purchased the property in 2005, added on a garage that's nearly indistinguishable from the main structure, having taken pains to match the brick and weeping mortar as precisely as possible.

"They were incredibly sensitive to the house's history," said Carras.

Connection to Nature

To demonstrate his handiwork, architect Benedict Bruns brought a new client to the construction site of 2839 W. Wilson Ave. (built in 1919) to show off one of his designs in progress. The client was so taken with the house, he ordered an exact replica — albeit in lighter brick — which still stands in Independence Park.

The Bower House, as this particular Manor home came to be known, was influenced by the Arts & Crafts movement in vogue during the early 20th century. The style places an emphasis on quality workmanship as well as simplicity and a connection to nature, according to Carras.

Original by Design

There are thousands of bungalows in Chicago, but how many have a turret?

The original owner of the Sherman House at 2730 W. Windsor Ave. was Robert Sherman, a theatrical manager, according to 1920 census data uncovered by RMIA. The turret room served as a music conservatory and there was a performance stage in the home's basement, according to Carras.

While it may be a one-of-a-kind home, the Sherman House has something in common with other Manor gems — an architect with multiple nods on the CHRS list.

A large number of homes in the neighborhood are variations on a handful of themes, built from plans provided by the developer, William Harmon, Carras said.

The gems, by contrast, are typically the handiwork of respected architects, designed with specific owners in mind.

George Purssell, architect of the Sherman House, has two other CHRS buildings to his name. Even more notable is the work of Horatio Wilson, whose CHRS credits include not only the Manor's Carlson House — a Scandinavian-style cottage at 2760 W. Windsor Ave. — but a number of South Side mansions and the landmarked Chess Records, among others.

Restoration, Not Renovation

Though the porch of the Lund House, a 1913 gem located at 2844 W. Eastwood Ave., has been altered from its original open plan, the home's rubble chimney and column and other rustic details have been retained over the years, according to Carras.

In fact, the gems as a whole have undergone precious few external changes, with owners largely opting to restore rather than renovate, an approach RMIA encourages.

"When you live in a historic district, you make decisions based on the character of the neighborhood," Carras said.

Anytime RMIA board members see one of the neighborhood's Harmon Homes or another significant house come up for sale, they supply information on restoration tax incentives to the buyers, she said.

The board has also asked the community's aldermen to send notification of any requests for zoning variances, in a bid to nip four-story houses and circular driveways in the bud.

Said Carras, "We don't want to become Lincoln Park."

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