In Brookfield, if you mention the name of Conrad Schneider to people, they will very likely reply, “Who’s he?” Yet there was a time when he was very well known, especially in the Congress Park section of the village.
The first address directory issued by the Grossdale Methodist Episcopal Church in 1899 simply lists his trade as “stone mason.” The seventh such directory that came out in 1905 does not even indicate that, but by then Schneider had begun to advertise in the directories as a “General contractor and builder. Stone and brick work. Boulder work and cement work of all kinds. Phone Grossdale 213.”
Besides being both a contractor and builder, he was said to have designed the exteriors of many buildings, while his wife, Anna, designed the interiors. Apparently they comprised a husband-and-wife architectural team who created the most unique homes, not only in Congress Park, but also in “scores of homes … in LaGrange and surrounding towns.”
As a builder, Schneider worked with common brick and wood, but then, so did many others in Brookfield, whose names are either dimly remembered or lost to history altogether. What made this man’s buildings so very special was that he built the exterior of them using boulders of all sizes; natural fieldstone that lay around on the local prairies. He gathered these useless stones and constructed what he called “last ever” homes with them.
Conrad Schneider was born in Galena in 1861, and as a young man traveled extensively, finally living for a time in rough, unsettled South Dakota. After a while he came back to Illinois, and finally put down roots in West Grossdale’s opening year, 1895. Ten years later, this name was changed to Congress Park.
He built the first house ever erected in Congress Park, at 4172 DuBois Blvd., and it still exists today. The first family to occupy the boulder-sided home were John Wesley Gross; his wife, Sophia; son John W. Jr.; and daughter Ella. John Gross Sr. was no less than the brother of the founder of Brookfield and also of Congress Park, Samuel E. Gross.
The founder was known to have a fondness for the attractive, unusual and economical, and may have commissioned Schneider to erect many of the houses in his new subdivision. According to an 1898 sales guide, some were shown with below-porch floor sections covered with boulders.
In 1895, Schneider also built the first business building in Congress Park, the West Grossdale Opera House, on the southwest corner of Ogden Avenue and DuBois Boulevard. Its ground floor was completely boulder-sided and housed a drug store, grocery store and dry goods store. The second floor contained a large theater, rich in Victorian opulence. While the seating was of the ordinary wooden folding chair variety, the stage boasted an ornate proscenium arch and even adjustable scenery curtains.
Did Schneider and his wife design this building? No answer exists. In fact, it is not known whether either of them ever had any formal architectural training. The Opera House suffered a fire in the early 1900s that decimated the theater section, and the entire building (boulders still firmly attached) burnt down in 1981. Some of these boulders still rest in the Brookfield Historical Society basement.
In September of 1900, Schneider built the East School at the corner of Shields and Raymond avenues. After 1905, it became known as the Congress Park School. And though the last viewable upper section of boulders was covered over about the year 2000, some of the interior of the old schoolhouse still remains in use.
You can still see the boulder walls from inside the attic. This building and interior were not planned out by the Schneiders, however. The architect for the East School was John Neal Tilton, who also drew the plans for the Lyons Township High School building on Brainard Avenue in LaGrange, in 1888.
It should not be surprising that Schneider built his own boulder home at 4126 Raymond Ave., and even the boulder-sided coach house out back, using this as his base of operations.
“Conrad Schneider is a man with ideas,” said the LaGrange Citizen newspaper of Sept. 29, 1916. He had proven this to be true in the years previous, not only by his boulder-walled structures, but also by creating a building ornamentation that still excites comment today.
He had decided on a simple and cost-efficient manner of making his homes more attractive. Along the rooflines, he installed crenellations or, more simply, battlements made out of cement. These still exist on many residences, and give them a castle-like appearance.
Perhaps the most impressive of these is at 4125 Deyo Ave., whose wide porch arch easily gives the impression of being a royal balcony. Directly in back of 4125 sits Schneider’s own home on Raymond, the “little castle” behind the “big castle.”
Schneider could, it seems, build anything with boulders and battlements. In 1906, a steel water fountain/horse trough was installed out front of the Brookfield village hall, at the current site of the Grossdale Train Station.
In the summer of 1913, a runaway team of horses belonging to the Hibbard Express and Van Company of LaGrange destroyed this fountain. In its place, during December of 1913, Schneider built a castle-topped boulder fountain, with trough on the streetside, and drinking fountain accessible from the sidewalk. It remained in use until the late 1950s.
But he could build without his well-known “B and Bs,” too. In 1905, he advertised that he was available to lay plain old cement sidewalks, although his later newspaper ads still stressed “boulder homes a specialty.”
About 1915, he lent his boulder stylings to a Sears catalog house kit shipped to 4009 DuBois Blvd. Called “The Sherburne,” the Prairie-School influenced building originally called for a cement block base. Instead, it was decided that Schneider would construct the base, porch and chimney out of”-yes, you guessed it. Other details were changed, such as relocating the front porch stairs to the alley side, and constructing a wide second floor viewing porch.
The Congress Park streets with the most boulder and castle homes are Deyo Avenue and Raymond Avenue, the latter being the one the Schneiders’ lived on. Nowhere else does there appear to be such a concentration of these buildings.
The most publicized of his homes may be at 4121 Deyo Ave., having been written up in the Sept. 29, 1916 LaGrange Citizen newspaper, describing it as a “boulder bungalow … on Deyo Avenue near Ogden Avenue. It is a beautiful little structure and has attracted no little comment from the people in that neighborhood, and also [from] architects ‘who know.’
“Although built with a bungalow effect, it is two stories in height. On the first floor is a cozy living room with a fireplace. This is connected with the dining room by double doors. The kitchen, all finished in white enamel, is directly off the dining room and side entrance for grocerymen, milkmen, and also leads to the basement.
“In the basement is a large [coal] fuel room, and there is also a garage that may be entered from the basement. On the second floor are two airy bedrooms and the bathroom. From the upstairs hall, are large French windows which give entrance to a balcony over the front porch, which may easily be made into a sun parlor at the owner’s option.”
The article goes on to mention a fence in front of the house, and two concrete arches hung between three concrete posts. These are not currently evident at 4121 Deyo Ave., but may have disintegrated over time and been removed. Also, 4121 is not all-boulder fronted, but does have some boulder work.
As of 1997, it still had its castle battlements, which are no longer in existence. On the second floor, facing the street, there is an obvious balcony, and a new, modern door leading out onto it.
“This, in Mr. Schneider’s opinion, is one of the prettiest little boulder homes he has ever built,” the article concluded.
At this time, Schneider also told the paper that he had just purchased a lot on “North Ashland Avenue, near Oak Avenue,” in LaGrange Park, and intended to “improve it with one of his unique and original buildings.” He did so, and this boulder home still exists at 535 N. Ashland Ave. Another of his homes is at 712 Bell Ave. in LaGrange Park.
While there is no documentary evidence yet at hand to prove this, the boulder home at 37 Longcommon Road in Riverside may be another example of Schneider’s handiwork. A comparison of this structure with the details of his other boulder homes, strongly suggests that he was the builder. Unfortunately, no conclusion can be drawn at this time, and the Riverside building is scheduled for demolition.
It was in 1918 that Schneider’s years of heavy exertion may have finally caught up with him, and he became a semi-invalid, although directing his workers in simple projects such as porch base boulder coverings. On Friday, Sept. 8, 1921, he suffered a stroke that led to a gradual fading of his health until his death nearly one year later, on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 1922.
At the time of his death, his newspaper obituary revealed that he had never joined any fraternal orders, apparently including the Masons, which should have been a natural affinity for him.
A fact that could have become controversial had it been known from the late 1940s to the 1980s was that “he was a Socialist and later became a follower of Lenin whom he proclaimed as the greatest statesman who ever lived.” Imagine that little tidbit being known during the early 1950s McCarthy era! People living in homes and going to a school built by an early Communist!
For the first time ever, here is a comprehensive guide to the location of Conrad and Anna Schneider’s boulder and castle homes. There are 27 in the Congress Park area. A grand total of zero exist on Blanchan, Maple, Madison, and Congress Park avenues.
On DuBois Boulevard, are five, at 4009, 4153, 4167, 4172, and 4235. On Deyo Avenue are nine, at 4006, 4008, 4121, 4125, 4147, 4149, 4171, 4237, and 4300. On Raymond Avenue there are also nine, at 4111, 4121, 4126, 4136, 4146, 4150, 4156, 4204, and 4208. On Arthur Avenue are only two, at 4128, and 4143. Finally, on Burlington Boulevard, there are also only two, at 9309, and 9417, but you have to look close to spot the boulders beneath the coats of paint over them.
During the several past decades, the Schneider name has become all but forgotten, but the boulder homes and castle homes have survived the passing of decades. They are still unique residences, bringing joy and a sense of wonder to those not only living in them, but also to those just seeing them.
Centuries, perhaps millenniums from now, they may once again be nothing but a lot of boulders lying on the ground, but they will have had their moments in time. And who knows? Thousands of years hence, they may, once again, have their uses.