By Bob Uphues
Dean Eastman, whose painstaking restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie-style masterpiece Coonley Estate in Riverside earned the universal admiration and praise of preservationists, died March 4 following a massive stroke at the age of 78.
Mr. Eastman and his wife, Ella Mae, purchased the "public wing" of the sprawling former estate of industrialist Avery Coonley in 2000 and commenced a four-year restoration effort of such scope and detail that it resulted in a 2004 Wright Spirit Award from the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy.
"He was dogged," said John Waters, preservation programs manager for the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. "He always wants to do things the best, most appropriate way.
"He was a model steward."
A former director of Argonne National Laboratories and physics professor in the James Franck Institute at the University of Chicago, Mr. Eastman brought a scientific approach to preservation, conducting his own research, analyzing historic photographs and paint samples, inventing solutions and sometimes crafting items himself.
"What impressed me most was his rigor," said Charles Pipal, an architect and longtime chairman of the Riverside Preservation Commission. "He really did his research, as far as the nuts and bolts of preservation is concerned. Coming in as a science professional, that was one thing that impressed me the most."
In 2005, the Eastmans rescued another portion of the estate, buying the former coach house, restoring the exterior and gardens while turning the structure into a three-bedroom, 4.5-bath home.
The coach house had been owned since the 1950s by Carolyn Howlett, who helped save the entire estate from demolition and redevelopment. At the time the Eastmans purchased the coach house, it was under the control of the Cook County Public Guardian, which had sought permission to replace its deteriorating tile roof with asphalt shingles.
Instead, the Eastmans bought the home, allowing Howlett to live in the home she loved until her death in late 2005.
"The coach house is a prime example of his dedication to preservation," said Aberdeen Marsh-Ozga, who is a member of the Riverside Preservation Commission and also active in the Frederick Law Olmsted Society, which presented a pair of awards to the Eastmans for their restoration work at the Coonley Estate.
"Money wasn't the driving factor for Dean Eastman," Marsh-Ozga said. "He genuinely cared with passion about this house and its history."
Mr. Eastman's work on the coach house and public wing of the estate set a high bar for the owners of other portions. The "bedroom wing" of the estate — separated from the public wing by a firewall built in the 1950s — is presently undergoing restoration by its owners John Farneda and Stephanus Greeff.
As a resource on Wright restoration, Mr. Eastman was indispensable.
"If it weren't for him, we never would have bought the dilapidated bedroom wing of the estate," Farneda said. "Whenever we weren't sure how to handle a repair or restoration with the house, we always said, 'Call Dean. He'll know what to do.'"
Mr. Eastman documented his restoration effort, self-publishing the book Frank Lloyd Wright's Coonley House Estate: An Unabridged Documentary, which remains a resource for the owners of other Wright houses.
"His legacy is the building," said Pipal, "For generations, people will able to enjoy it and marvel at it. What a wonderful legacy to leave behind."
While the Coonley Estate was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and named a Riverside landmark in 1993, the Eastmans ensured the building's preservation when they placed a preservation easement with the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy on the property.
That the Eastmans took on such a monumental task in Riverside was no sure thing. The couple was living on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago in 2000 when Ella Mae Eastman took a trip to Florida while Mr. Eastman stayed home. While she was gone, Mr. Eastman happened upon the Coonley House, which was for sale.
"I didn't want to move," said Ella Mae Eastman. "I had tears in my eyes at the closing."
But, she said, "He wanted to do it so badly. It was his baby."
The Coonley Estate wasn't Mr. Eastman's first building project. As young as 12 years old, said his wife, Mr. Eastman built a small barn for his father. He would later oversee building projects at homes in New York and Maine.
"He did one after another," Ella Mae Eastman said. "He was not only a physicist, he was an engineer. He liked designing things."
Mr. Eastman was born on Jan. 21, 1940 in Oxford, Wisconsin. The son of Eric Eastman, an iron miner, logger and farmer, and Mildred Benson Eastman, he grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
He graduated from Stambaugh (Michigan) High School, earned a National Merit Scholarship and attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned three degrees.
Mr. Eastman embarked on a long career with IBM, serving as a research physicist at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York. He was chosen an IBM Fellow.
The Eastmans moved to the Chicago area in 1996, serving as director at Argonne Labs for two years. In addition to teaching at the University of Chicago, Mr. Eastman was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects.
In addition to Ella Mae, his wife of 38 years, Mr. Eastman is survived by his brothers, Ray (Pam) Eastman and Paul (Diane) Eastman as well as several nieces and nephews, including his niece Jody Eastman McCain and her family, to whom he was especially close. He was preceded in death by his sister, Bonnie Eastman, and his brother, James Eastman.
A celebration of Mr. Eastman's life will be held at the Avery Coonley House in Riverside on March 25 and at Carrabassett Lodge on Peaks Island, Maine, on July 29.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions can be made to the Peaks Island Fund at www.peaksislandfund.org.