A Mid-Century Modern “Dream House” in Oak Park
ngg_shortcode_0_placeholderWhen John Economos came to the United States from Greece, he had just $50 in his pocket. Decades later, he was well known in the community, thanks to his thriving & popular restaurant, The Coronet, at the northeast corner of Austin & Lake in Oak Park.
But when John and his wife, Constance, decided to find a new home for their family in the early ’60s, their search turned out not to be so easy.
“My Father told my Mom ‘Just go find whatever you want’, and so she went to a bunch of open houses to try to find our new house,” says Pat Economos, John & Constance’s daughter. “But she didn’t like what she was seeing. A lot of the homes were really quirky. Or they smelled. Some had really old features like dumb waiters. But my parents wanted nice things and so finally one day my Dad said ‘I’ve had enough! Let’s build a house. Let’s find a lot and we’ll build our own house.'”
The lot they ended up finding was the side lot of a house on Fair Oaks Avenue, which the owner had used as a garden. The side lot was split off and sold to the Economos family, and now they needed to find an architect.
“My parents had a friend who was an architect, but he didn’t do residential work. Most of the tradespeople my Father knew were people he dealt with in his business owning the restaurant,” continues Pat. “Their friend had another friend who was a residential architect, named John M. Considine. He had designed & built a house for himself in Elmhurst, and they got to talking about and it and Considine started to work on a design for our new family home.”
John and Constance did a lot of research, even before the house was designed, collecting catalogs from various manufacturers for products that they wanted to use in the house. Surprisingly, though, they weren’t specifically looking for a house of any particular style.
“My parents hadn’t specifically asked Mr. Considine to design a modern house for them,” says Pat. “This just happened to be what he came up with based on all of the requirements they had. In fact, he tried to talk my father out of putting 5 bathrooms in the house, asking him ‘Why do you need five bathrooms?!’ My Father said ‘John, I can afford to put 5 bathrooms in this house, so that’s what we’re going to do.'”
But the house wasn’t perfect at first.
“When Mr. Considine presented the first set of plans to my Father, he had designed the house with a garage in the back, facing the alley, like most of the other homes in the area,” continues Pat. “My Father wasn’t having any of that. He told Mr. Considine that because the restaurant required late hours, and because my Mom sometimes helped out at the restaurant, he didn’t want my Mom – or me for that matter – walking from the alley into the house late at night. He wanted the garage to face the front and be accessible from Fair Oaks.”
Considine went back to the drawing board and came up with the house that you see today at 1024 Fair Oaks Avenue. Constructed with an exterior of limestone, brick and green marble panels, the home’s modern aesthetic is a striking contrast to the mostly older American Four Square and other traditional homes in Oak Park.
It’s also deceptively large. Even though it presents as relatively modest from the front, the house is just over 3,200 square feet, which was very big for 1962 (and is still larger than the average new home size in the U.S., which is a little over 2,600 square feet).
Considine’s clever design placed the entryway on the north side of the house, with the foyer welcoming guests who would then go up a few steps, past an oak-clad planter, to the large Living Room at the front of the house, with expansive, high-end Pella windows facing the street.
As was common in the ’50s and ’60s, often even with modern home designs, the kitchen was designed to be relatively small and out of the way, tucked in an area on the other side of the entryway, and separated by a door from the foyer so that guests knew not to go that way.
In the center of the main level is one of the five bathrooms that John Economos insisted be designed into the house: A powder room that opened to the landing at the top of the foyer steps. On the opposite side of the powder room from the foyer was the Dining Room, so guests could flow from the Living Room at the front, through French doors to the Dining Room on the south side of the house. From there, steps lead half a flight up or down to the bedroom or recreation level.
The lower level, which is actually at grade, has a wall of glass at the back, with doors out to what was originally a patio, and the backyard beyond. Because John Economos insisted that the house have an attached, front-facing garage, the backyard is open and free of the detached garage that most Oak Park homes have.
Originally, the lower level featured a cedar closet and a bar, in addition to the vast Rec Room that occupies most of that level.
A couple more steps down are the Laundry Room, utilities, and then a door into the garage. And while these areas aren’t typically exciting in any given home, Pat’s Father had some specific requirements there, too.
“My Father knew a plumber who he really liked from working with him at the restaurant, and he wanted him to do the plumbing for our house. But the guy was a commercial plumber,” says Pat. “Mr. Considine said ‘He’s kind of expensive, John. Wouldn’t you rather use a residential plumber and save some money?’ But again, my Father wasn’t interested in that. He wanted things in the house to be better than normal. And that’s what he got.”
Not only is the plumbing in the house commercial-grade, but other things were over-done, too, such as the insulation, which is much better than in a traditional home. The standing seam metal roof wasn’t common on homes in the area back then, either, but the design of the house lent itself to using such a roof, and it requires very little maintenance.
But one of the best things that John asked Considine to do was to have the garage heated and cooled by the home’s HVAC systems. “Dad didn’t want Mom to have to get into a cold car, and she never did!” says Pat. “And neither did I. It was great. We were very spoiled by all of the things Dad had Mr. Considine incorporate into that house!”
The 2-car garage also has a couple of storage rooms off to one side, so the house has plenty of storage.
in 2005, after John and Constance had both passed away, Pat and her brother, George, refreshed the kitchen and sold the house. But the new owner didn’t seem to really appreciate the special nature of the house.
“I’m sure they were great people,” says Pat, “but I don’t think they really understood modern architecture. They made a bunch of changes to the house that didn’t really fit very well. They put in Colonial-style crown moulding and Colonial six-panel doors and things like that. It didn’t fit the house very well.”
Then, in 2008, Carl, an architect, and Kim, an attorney, who were relocating with their family from Texas, happened to see the house when it was for sale.
“I was the first to tour the house,” says Carl, whose architecture work is focused on the hospitality industry, “and we weren’t really looking for any style in particular. As an architect, a house that was true to its design is something of importance, whether speaking about a Craftsman, Prairie-style, Mid-Century Modern or even a 21st-century modern concept. So I was significantly turned off by how the previous homeowners, who bought the house from the Economos family, messed with what had been a truly mid-century home. They removed some of the original materials and did things like adding brass chandeliers, arched doorways, painted crown moulding, Victorian oak turned railings and Masonite hollow core doors, all in an attempt to turn the house into something it was never intended to be.”
At the same time, Carl could see a clear vision for the house.
But when the rest of the family finally got the chance to look at the house, Carl and Kim’s daughters, Jayne and Carlee, weren’t so sure about it. In fact, the girls may have shed a tear or two as their parents considered buying a house that seemed, to them, a bit strange with its colorful 1960s tubs and toilets. But Kim new that her then 10 and 8 year-old girls would soon become teenagers, and she saw the real value in all those bathrooms.
“We knew we wanted to stay true to the period while bringing the house into current technology,” continues Carl. “This is not unlike the original owner, who embraced progressive technologies like the NuTone audio system and low voltage push-button lighting controls, water filtration and multiple-zone central A/C. In addition, the home is well-insulated, the roof design is a low-maintenance solution, the original casement Pella windows function amazingly both in terms of operation and air flow. And we loved the fireplaces! There are three of them: One in the living room, one in the original dining room, and the third one is in the rec room.”
So when it came time to undo some of what the 2nd owners had done to the house, and to bring the house into the modern age in a manner respectful to the home’s original architecture, Carl had a pretty good idea of what he wanted to do.
“As a hospitality designer, I bring considerations about how people live, entertain, and rest. We wanted to maintain the aspects of natural light and enhance that with open skylights, lighter finishes, and open space. We quickly experienced that how people live now placed the old kitchen in a tight space that clogged the flow from the front door to the stairs. Our selections and decisions encompass the concept of creating a home that was great to live, work and entertain in throughout the Chicagoland seasons.”
The biggest and most notable change was the decision Carl & Kim made to move the kitchen to the other side of the main level, where the dining room originally was. It was a much bigger space, and enabled them to open up some of the walls that had originally separated the foyer from the kitchen, allowing light from all sides of the home to flow into other spaces.
Arched doorways were made square again, the opening between the original dining room, now the kitchen, and the living room was made larger, and the two large skylights were opened up to add even more light on the main level. If relocating the kitchen was a major change, however, things upstairs didn’t need as much reworking.
“The home’s original design was well-thought out,” continues Carl. “Private spaces were defined so that each bedroom is a retreat unto itself. The more we lived in the house, the more we grew to appreciate the thought, care and sophistication that went into the original design.”
The three bedrooms on the upper level are indeed worthy of the title “retreat”. Each one has an en suite full bathroom, and each bedroom has two closets: A clothes closet with built-in shoe storage boxes to keep shoes from getting dusty, and a linen closet.
In total, Kim & Carl made quite a few updates and improvements to the house, changing things like bath fixtures while retaining original mid-century tile & tubs, which were all in excellent condition and have so much authentic character. They updated the HVAC systems within the last couple of years, added new recessed and ceiling lighting in a number of areas, and have really enjoyed using the home’s original NuTone audio system, which they’ve connected an Echo Dot to to stream music throughout various parts of the house and outside in the backyard.
While Carl & Kim did have to undo or re-do a lot of what the 2nd owners did to the finishes and details, the lower walkout level included some layout changes that they appreciated. The previous owners had converted a former bar area into a 4th bedroom, and what was originally a powder room on that level, they turned into a full bath by adding a steam shower. Access to the bath is both from the bedroom and from hallway off the rec room, so each bedroom in the home as a private or adjacent full bath. There’s also a home office on the lower level, converted by the 2nd owners from a large cedar closet.
Thanks to the size of the home, clever zoning of the original plan that Carl & Kim have improved upon, and because of the large backyard that doesn’t have a detached garage in it, the home is also great for entertaining.
“We don’t entertain as much as the house might like us to,” says Kim, “but when we do, the house has been great for any type of event. We hosted a ‘Mad Men’ party for a Hatch Elementary School fundraiser and the party became a bit notorious in the area! We’ve hosted High School graduation parties, church dinners, youth gatherings, our annual Christmas reindeer pancake breakfast, block parties and of course family visitors. Not to mention all the kids who came to our home over the years. The rec room has always been a great place for our girls and their friends to hang out. It’s a very comfortable home to entertain in.”
And what do their guests think of the house?
“We have many friends who are in the design community,” says Carl. “They’re impressed by the house and its design. We’re frequently complimented on the house as a whole from our friends, family and even people who happen to pass by and stop to say something.”
Apparently, this is not a new phenomenon.
“People used to walk or drive by the house really slowly,” says Pat, “probably because it was such an unusual home for the area. Every once in a while, people would venture into the yard and look around. If my Mom was home, she’d go out and say ‘Hi’ and invite them in to see the house.”
Now, due to a work opportunity for Carl, the house is on the market for just the third time in 57 years. This time, however, the home is more true to its original character than the last time, and it’s been modernized and improved in many ways to suit modern patterns of living.
“It’s hard to think about leaving this place,” says Kim. “There’s obviously the emotional ties of raising our two girls here. We have so many great memories! Our friends on the block are wonderful, warm and welcoming. As Spring arrives, we see and visit with them as we all come out to our front yards, or walk our dogs.”
“I don’t think you can separate the physical structure from the emotional aspects,” adds Carl. “Living in and caring for this house has grown my personal preference in modern styling. The appreciation for all of this is something we’ll take with us and use as we look for our next home where my work is taking us.”