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Poet Carl Sandburg's Old House Being Renovated For A New Era

By Mark Schipper | November 4, 2015 7:59am
 The great poet's house in Ravenswood before and during its renovation. 
Carl Sandburg House
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RAVENSWOOD — Stripped down and clean like his verse, poet Carl Sandburg’s former home in Ravenswood is under renovation for a new era in Chicago. 

Owners Susan Sattell and Chip Hunter, who live at 4646 N. Hermitage Ave. with their school-age son, were happy to buy the historic landmark and embrace its status as a pilgrimage point for connoisseurs of the Chicago literary renaissance and American poetry of the early 20th century.

“We did know it was a historic landmark” when they bought the big frame home, Sattell said. “And we were very excited that it was the house Carl Sandburg wrote his famous poem 'Chicago' in.”

Sattell said her family isn't alone in its appreciation of the home's significance.

 The great poet's house is under renovation in Ravenswood
The great poet's house is under renovation in Ravenswood
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Mark Schipper

“I was a little surprised at the fact that [fans] do come by,” Sattell said. “I sometimes see people filming themselves, or reading a poem in front of the house, looking at the plaque or going out of their way to see the house. I think it’s kind of fun.”

The Sandburg House

The house, which has been in various states of renovation for more than two years, has been transformed from a two-flat to a traditional single family home, Sattell said. But in updating the building, the homeowners also prioritized restoring the house's exterior to its original state.

"The outside is going to look the way it did when Carl lived here, at least the public view will look the same," she said. "The inside, we wanted to fit the way we live now.”

When the family moved in, both the interior and exterior of the home had changed dramatically from the way it looked when Sandburg lived there from 1912 to 1915. To restore the outside and customize the inside, interior walls had to be stripped down to the studs, the basement floor was torn up and replaced, and the home's foundation required significant repairs.

“When we did take things down to the studs, we had kind of hoped we might some secrets and things like that,” said Sattell. “We did find one mechanism used for — I forget — but an old iron thing in the walls. But otherwise, unfortunately, we didn’t find a lot.”

Working with the Landmarks Commission, the family copied the exterior profile of the windows and siding to match the Sandburg years. The front doors are being stripped down and refurbished but are the same ones Sandburg walked through every day, leading to the same treads on the stairs that he would climb to his room. The siding will have to be replaced, but it will be painted the same dark green Sandburg saw when he went home.

“We also saved some of the pocket doors that opened up into the apartments inside the home. So we did some things like that to keep some of the flavor of the home, a few windows are still the same, but that was, unfortunately, all we could keep,” Sattell said.

While shoring up the house’s foundation, the family hauled up several hundred bricks used during the home's construction in the 1880s. Those old, craggy bricks, once made by the workers Sandburg chose to write about, are piled in two big stacks in the backyard, waiting to be put back to work as footings around the front porch and entrance.

Sandburg, the poet

“I think the fact that Sandburg was a poet for the people, for the working people, the working class, is really a special thing about him,” said Sattell. “Chicago being a working-class city, it made a landmark to him and his work really special.”

Sandburg, the man who lived and worked in Chicago, made up his mind slowly about life. Born in 1878, he'd worked as a hotel porter, a bricklayer in Kansas, a milkman, a farm laborer and a newspaper reporter.

He rode the rails, hopping trains and wandering as a hobo at age 19. Sandburg said it was on the road he developed a deep concern for the poor and a distrust of capitalism as the best cure for the deprivations they suffered. When he settled down, he was secretary to Emil Seidel, the socialist mayor of Milwaukee, from 1910 to 1912. It was after that job ended that he came to Chicago. 

Sattell liked that about Sandburg. She too came to Chicago from Wisconsin about 20 years ago and understood what Sandburg meant when he said he had to find a quiet neighborhood for his wife, who wasn’t awed by the prospect of moving to a big, gritty city.

“Sometimes I just miss the fresh air and trees and everything, and this neighborhood gives me that sense of air and space while I’m in the city,” Sattell said. “I really like the extra space on the south side of the house because it allows for a lot of gardening space, a lot of flowers and shrubs and things like that.” 

Sandburg made his reputation with a book called "Chicago Poems," which he wrote from his rented rooms on Hermitage and got published in 1916. There was an accessibility to his work not present in the intentionally arcane modern poetry movements surrounding him. His books could be picked up and read by the man on the street, and his scenes and words and meanings were immediate and recognizable. His work was not an exercise for the scholars to work through and produce volumes trying to explain. 

Sandburg’s poetry is durable, and now so is the house he wrote it in, rebuilt by workmen to serve a purpose, which is something the man himself would approve of. 

“With any old house you have to keep working at it and keep it up,” Sattell said. “Things are in a constant state of moving toward entropy, so I expect that we too, though we have done a big push to renovate everything, there will always be something to do to keep it running smoothly.”

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