Sometimes history falls into dormancy because it is considered mundane or insignificant. Then a chance discovery leads to a reawakening and a new appreciation for the past. Such was the case with Arthur and Christine Canavera and the building at 3 Longcommon Road in Riverside which houses their business, Riverside Plumbing.
And what a discovery it was, with evidence coming to light, proving that the building was designed by none other than Eben Ezra Roberts, one of the leading architects of the Prairie School.
Best known as the style of Frank Lloyd Wright, the Prairie School counts such notable architects as William E. Drummond, William Purcell, George Grant Elmslie, Talmadge & Watson and George W. Maher among its disciples.
Only a few Prairie-style commercial structures remain, and Roberts' Scoville Square building on the southwest corner of Lake Street and Oak Park Avenue in Oak Park is one of the outstanding examples on the National Register of Historic Places.
We in Riverside can now point with pride to the fact that we have a genuine Roberts structure which the owners have renovated to a close approximation of the original. I recently had the pleasure of meeting with the Canaveras, and they related the story of the building and its 2002 renovation to me.
First, a few words about E.E. Roberts (1866-1943). Roberts was born in Boston and studied architecture at Tilton Seminary in New Hampshire. He came to Chicago in 1890 and worked as a site superintendent for S.S. Beman at Pullman, located on Chicago's South Side, until 1893.
In 1893 Roberts moved to Oak Park and established his own practice. He designed over 200 homes in Oak Park in a multitude of styles, and his firm grew to become the largest in the village, rivaling that of Wright himself. Roberts eventually accepted mostly commercial commissions and favored the new style called "Prairie," with its emphasis on broad horizontal lines.
The firm moved to Chicago in 1912 and Roberts' son, Elmer, joined his father in the office in 1922, where they worked together until the elder Roberts' death in 1943. It is for E.E. Roberts' work in the revolutionary architectural transformation that took place in and around the Chicago of the early 20th century that he is today famously remembered.
James W. Castle came to Riverside in 1900 and established a plumbing business on East Quincy Street, later adding hardware to his repertoire. As his business flourished, Castle purchased the rear 25 feet of the first lots on the southeast corner of Longcommon Road and East Burlington Street.
In 1909 he hired Roberts to design a two-story commercial building with the intent of transferring his business to that location, which he did upon the structure's completion in late 1911. James and his wife lived in the apartment on the second floor above their business.
These original plans, long forgotten in the basement of the building, were discovered by the Canaveras by chance. As one contemplates the structure today, it looks as if Riverside Plumbing is just one of four businesses fronting on Longcommon Road in a single structure.
It actually is two separate buildings with a unified facade, with the Canaveras' plans pertaining only to the renovated structure. Thus it is not documented if the rest of the block is by Roberts, although it obviously must be. The old Riverside News contains an entry (Dec.23, 1911) referring to the entire block as the Owens-Castle Building. Owens' Dry Goods occupied what is today Pre-Hop Cleaners.
After serving for 30 years as Castle's plumbing and hardware store, Reed Henninger purchased the building in 1941. While the Castles continued to reside on the second floor (James died there in 1953), the Henningers remodeled the plumbing business into a Rexall drug store and soda fountain.
A modern facade was installed, and the entryway was offset to the southerly corner of the building. Henninger's relocated to the northeast corner of Longcommon Road and East Burlington Street in 1962. It was at that time that Royce and Gloria Canavera, Art's parents, leased the space at 3 Longcommon Road from the Henningers for their Brookfield-based plumbing business.
After completing the purchase of Alvin Anderson's hardware store on East Burlington Street, the Canaveras combined the businesses at 3 Longcommon Road. The hardware business was discontinued around 1972. Art and Christine took over the business from the senior Canaveras and purchased the building in 1985. The chance discovery of Roberts' plans led the Canaveras to become the catalysts of the building's epiphany.
Researching Roberts and his work as well as the history of their building resulted in the hiring of local architect Kevin Kemp to assist in bringing the structure back to its original splendor while making the necessary alterations consistent with today's code requirements.
New prism glass, matching the demolished original, was installed above the picture windows. The entrance was once again moved to the center of the building. Canvas awnings once again grace the exterior.
Inside, the original oak trim and wood floors were preserved upstairs, along with the fireplace and stained glass window. A section of the original tin ceiling has been preserved. The work was completed in 2002.
It is not difficult to stand across the street at Centennial Park and imagine what the rest of the Owen-Castle block could look like were the same level of attention to be lavished on it. Early photos reveal an elegant Prairie-style commercial structure that once filled the needs of a young, growing village.
As it wraps around East Burlington Street, the architecture is complemented on the south side of the street by similar structures all the way down to what is now Charter One Bank.
Art and Christine are in the process of seeking local landmark status for 3 Longcommon Road. They will make their case to Riverside's Preservation Commission shortly. An E.E. Roberts structure in the midst of Olmsted's Riverside? It should be a slam-dunk.