By Michael Romain
SUNDAY, MAYWOOD — The trolley rolled south on Fifth Avenue, swung right on St. Charles and slowed to a touristy speed to accommodate Lennel Grace’s color-by-color commentary.
Frank Lloyd Wright was a very jealous individual, Grace noted. He wouldn’t give his understudies any room to outshine him, so he practically forbade them to build their own designs in Oak Park. “So they went behind his back and snuck over here. Wright did the same thing to Sullivan–going behind his back–which is why he was fired!”
Grace, who along with former Village clerk and trustee Gary Woll and former Village manager Joe Ponsetto, conducted the tours for this year’s Annual Historical Homes House Walk and Trolley Tour, is from a family that’s been settled in Maywood since 1901.
He pointed to the brick Dutch Revival fire house on the corner of Fifth and St. Charles, which, according to the printed guide, was built in 1904 and served as “the Village’s first public fire station” until the early 1980s. The building had since been converted into someone’s residence. “A friend of mine from River Forest lives there now,” Grace said, in subtle reference to what would become one of the day’s themes.
While the Maywood of late has been known as a place from which the the well-to-do flee, the Maywood on display at this year’s Historical Homes House Walk and Trolley Tour is a destination point for reasons that may have been familiar to those same architectural luminaries and Wright understudies–now-famous names such as Drummond, Van Bergen, E.E. Roberts, Tallmadge and Watson–who were lured across the river more than a century ago.
Tom Kus, the President of the Maywood Historic Preservation Commission and one of the organizers of this year’s House Walk, came to Maywood thirteen years ago because of a home built by Jacob Bohlander, “a prominent local merchant, in 1896,” according to the guide. Bohlander was one of the Village’s first automobile owners, as well as its President from 1895-1898.
The home, which was open for viewing during the House Walk, features a wraparound front porch, Grek columns, a bridal staircase, original stained glass windows and a “carved oak mantle in the front room which opens to the foyer.” In an interesting twist of fate, Kus noted that he and other homeowners were fortunate because of what he called, ‘benign neglect.’
“A lot of these homes haven’t had more than two or three families occupy them over a century or more and since they’re too expensive to maintain, people just don’t do anything to them,” he said. As a result, an intrepid potential homeowner like Kus can come to Maywood and for the cost of renovations and a few hundred thousand dollars, occupy a historically rich dreamscape that would cost well upwards of $600,000 in River Forest or Oak Park.
You might call this phenomena ‘Colonel Nichols’ comeuppance,’ for the guy who founded Maywood, Colonel William Tecumseh Nichols, who formed the Village in 1868 after leading the Vermon Volunteers during the Civil War. According to Grace’s account, Nichols had formed Maywood after being spurned by residents of River Forest when he had tried to settle there. “He left and vowed that he would, ‘start a town that’s better than yours.'”
For a while, it may in fact have been wealthier. “Maywood was a tax-free zone,” Grace said. “So the wealthy people of Oak Park and River Forest said, ‘Aha! We’ll go there!’ That’s one of the reasons the town got started.”
While value judgments are in the mind of the beholder, what’s much more concrete is that Nichols’s plan has yielded housing stock that, if not quite on par as, definitely rivals that of, neighboring River Forest–except, Maywood’s gems typically go for basement bargain prices.
The opportunities rampant in Maywood are becoming increasingly difficult for would-be homeowners to bypass. “Maywood is an interesting community,” said Kus. “It’s starting to change. There are more professional people starting to buy houses up. I see a lot more flowers out, more homes being painted.”
As we walked on toward North Ninth Avenue, Mandy from Brookfield (she didn’t want to give her last name), noticed something else about Maywood. “You guys all know each other out here. They’re not like that in Brookfield.”
This was her first time participating in the House Walk. “I’ve been a member of the Chicago Architecture Foundation for 20 years. This is great,” she said.
Bob Jones is a 24-year resident of Maywood who, up until now, hadn’t gone too far south beyond Ninth Avenue. “I thought all of the historic homes [in Maywood] were on the North Side. I didn’t know that so many were on the South Side,” he said.
One of those South Side homes is at Oak and 15th Street. It used to belong to one of the biggest numbers runners on the West Side of Chicago in the early 1900s. After getting threatened by the Melrose Park mob (and nearly blown up when thugs accidentally bombed the house across the street, mistaking it for his), he escaped one night through a tunnel underneath his home. “There are a number of houses in Maywood that have tunnels,” Grace said.
That the architectural history and diversity of the Village is so spread out is no surprise to Mayor Edwenna Perkins, who also took the tour. “I’ve always said we’ve got beautiful homes in our Village.” The Mayor hopes that the tour can be part cultural attraction and part marketing tool for prospective homebuyers. “We’re getting back to a safe community. We have a lot to offer.”
Below are some of photos of homes (with brief descriptions from the print guide) whose interiors were open for people to tour:
The Jacob Bohlander House – 316 North 4th Avenue:
“The use of Greek columns on the front wrap around porch and dormers suggests the free classic Queen Anne style popular in the 1890s. The house was finished with classically influenced features. The interior boasts an unusual carved glass window in the foyer depicting the Bohlander family crest, stained glass in the elaborate ‘bridal’ stairwell, and a carved oak mantle in the front room which opens to the foyer.”
The Benson House – 408 North 5th Avenue:
“The block in which this house is located was purchased by Ella and Orren Bensen in 1881, from some of the earliest settlers in the area, Admiral Willis Mould and his wife. Orren Bensen was Treasurer of Maywood’s first Village Board, which was formed in 1881. He served as Village President from 1890 to 1893, during which time the house was built. It is speculated that this house may have been remodeled, since it combines both Prairie Style and Victorian features. This home was designed by famed Prairie School Architect E.E. Roberts. The current owners have plans to nominate this home to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.”
The Carolina Crow House – 603 North 6th Avenue:
“David R. Grow originally owned this clapboard house in 1875. It is typical of post 1900 Foursquare, yet it has stylistic characteristics that are carryover from the 19th century architecture. It is symmetrical in its general appearance, yet it is more vertical than most. The interior has two parlors rather than one family room. Its Classical detailing, influenced by the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, is every bit as important as its simply designed 20th century built-ins.”
Restored Victorian Farmhouse – 417 North 9th Avenue:
“The exterior was restored by the former owner of Lewis Supply, now Richard Supply, which is located directly across the street. He installed siding, custom made windows that accurately replaced the original windows and rebuilt the front porch. The current owner de-converted the residence from triple family back to single family. Fortunately, nearly all of the original interior features and decor have been preserved.”
Victorian Mansion – 200 S. 18th Avenue:
“This Queen Anne style home was built in 1921 by Capt. William F. Scott, who was a doctor in the Medical Reserves Corps of the US Army. It was then owned by Thomas Nelson, who was president of the First Suburban Bank of Maywood. Andrew and Cleo Black, prominent owners of a cement contractor firm that served the western suburbs for over 30 years, bought the house in 1958. This multistory house features a witch’s hat turret, bay windows, open front porch, 3,000 square feet of area with 7 bedrooms and 4 baths. The house also features pocket doors, a fireplace and sits on a huge corner lot.”
James Fletcher Skinner House – 400 S. 18th Avenue:
“This Victorian mansion was constructed in 1902. It still has the beautiful original staircase, 3 sets of pocket doors and much of the original inlay floor. Skinner was an early partner of Richard Sears, joining him in 1895, and eventually becoming the general merchandiser of Sears Roebuck. The current owner has done much restoration, including opening the front porch and also has future plans to restore the 3rd floor sleeping balcony.”
The McIntyre House – 430 S. 20th Avenue:
“This Queen Anne style home was built before 1904 (architect unknown) and was the residence of Margaret McIntyre until approximately 1926. Ms. McIntyre worked as a saleslady for Otto Young & Co., a wholesale jewelry business that was founded and owned by Otto Young in 1872 and closed in 1928. The house was later purchased by the Christensen family and Smith families, respectively.”