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Plan to Turn Ex-Orphanage into Single-Family Home with Roof Garden OKd

By Alisa Hauser | March 5, 2015 5:13pm | Updated on March 6, 2015 8:23am
 New owners of the former Jewish orphanage at 1239 N. Wood St.
Former Jewish Orphange, New Owners
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WICKER PARK — Members of a Wicker Park group have given their unanimous support for a zoning change that will allow the owners of one of the neighborhood's most distinctive homes — originally built as an orphanage for Jewish children — to build a rooftop garden, green house and sun deck.

Built in 1903, the 22,000-square-foot, 3-story brick and limestone mansion was sold for $3.1 million in June to new owners, Michael Mertz and Mackenzie Maher.

Members of the Wicker Park Commitee voted 21-0 in favor of the zoning request at a meeting in the park field house, 1425 N. Damen Ave. on Wednesday.

The "up-zoning" will allow the couple's design firm, Aberdeen Development, to build a rooftop atrium garden and a glass-enclosed greenhouse with solar panels, renderings show.

Joseph Panfil, a project manager with Aberdeen Development, said the three-bedroom, five-bathroom home is undergoing significant renovations including updating the plumbing.

"The roof was leaking; it needs a lot of work," Panfil said.

After the meeting, Maher said she was drawn to the home the minute she walked into it.

"I fell in love with it; I love the Potomac garden space in the courtyard, it was magical. We plan on maintaining the beautiful grounds and gardens. The green roof will have a garden, plants and shrubs," Maher said. 

Photo by Maher:

If all goes as planned, Maher said she and Mertz, who currently live in Wicker Park, will move into their new home this fall.

"It sounds kind of morbid saying the rest of my life, but that's how long we want to be there. The project has been a labor of love for us," Maher said.

Mertz works in the credit card processing industry and is a member of a band, Pistols at Dawn. In 2008, Mertz' s Ukrainian Village condo was featured in Chicago magazine.

Maher, a fashion trailblazer, is an interior designer and former curator for Dose Market.

In a very brief presentation about the history of the home, Mertz said that the previous owner wanted to sell her home to a family that would live there and not to a real estate developer.

Thomas Moore, the couple's zoning attorney, shared a vintage photo of the home. Moore said it was a Jewish orphanage before the owner reportedly sold the home to the organizers of a Polish Veterans hall for $10.

The previous owner, Mary O'Shaughnessy, an artist, bought the building for $150,000 in 1987, records show.  O'Shaughnessy now lives in Washington.

"I wanted [to sell to] someone who'd not cut it up into ten apartments. When I bought it for 150,000, three-flats were going for $35,000 at that time. My how the neighborhood has changed," O'Shaughnessy said in an email.

For fans of the canon that was positioned in front of the home, Panfil said the Japanese Howitzer dating back to 1935 will be returned to the yard after the structure is restored.

The former Marks Nathan Home was established by Chicago's Eastern European Jewish Community in the early 1900s.

Started by businessman Marks Nathan, who left $15,000 in his will to create for either an orthodox hospital or orphanage, the home opened on May 13, 1906, with 29 childen admitted, according to a 2006 report, "Orthodoxy as a Means of Becoming Good Jewish Americans: Two Jewish Orphanages in Chicago."

In 1912, the home relocated to a larger location at 1550 South Albany Ave., opening with 189 children.  For more than 40 years it served as as "a refuge for Jewish children whom life had handed a lousy deal," according to a Tribune report on a 1992 reunion of former residents.  It is unknown if some of those reunited folks started off in the Wicker Park original spot or the second location.

The orphanage housed boys and girls whose parents had died from disease or accident while others lived there "because their fathers and mothers had been broken by the stress of starting life over a new country," wrote Trib reporter Ron Grossman.

Each child was given a Hebrew education, though they were also educated in public schools, and music lessons. Children were required to spend an hour in the orphanage library every day before going to out to play.

Mertz and Maher:

Contributing: Tanveer Ali

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