There was something different about the stone house with the turrets at 3744 Stanley Ave. in Riverside Lawn. As you walked on the path from the Swinging Bridge through the woods, the fairy-tale building just appeared out of nowhere.
As crickets chirped and deer bounded into the trees, you were for a moment transported back more than a century to when Riverside Lawn was just being settled, a neighborhood literally in a forest.
“It was a magical house. Sometimes I can’t believe I got to live there,” said Judy Koessel, who lived in the home for 17 years until selling it to the Cook County Land Bank as part of a buy-out program to reconvert Riverside Lawn into the barren flood plain it was meant to be.
Koessel and her husband, Al, were the final owners of the home, which dated to the 1890s and was built by Alexander Watson, the man responsible for platting and developing Riverside Lawn after buying the land from Moses J. Wentworth in 1891.
For the first decade they lived in the house, flooding wasn’t so bad, Judy Koessel said. It was a fact of life, but she and her husband worked out a system to pump out the basement and generally keep things livable.
But from 2008 on, the floods intensified in their frequency and intensity. In the end, Koessel knew their days were numbered in the home.
“I think what actually made our decision was the cost of the flood insurance,” said Koessel, and the prospect that one day insurance companies might simply stop offering it for a property so prone to flooding.
But for almost two decades, the Koessels and their neighbors formed a tight community, bound not only by the trials of surviving floods but by the fact that Riverside Lawn was its own little kingdom.
Riverside Lawn was never incorporated into any municipality and as a result, its property owners lived with a kind of freedom.
When the neighborhood threw a party, neighbors threw a party. Because there were few codes guiding what they could and couldn’t do, a common focal point at a big party was a bonfire.
Koessel says she remembers one in particular where the night climaxed by six men throwing a piano into the bonfire.
“The sound it made was absolutely hysterical,” Koessel said.
At the last party, thrown late in the summer of 2016 after many residents had sold their homes, they made sure that former resident Bob Holdsworth and his band had songs about flooding on the set list.
But the little, everyday things encountered while living in the home were what stood out to Koessel as magical.
There were the initials of children of the second owner, Oscar Jenke, carved into a brick on the back porch. And there were Saturday mornings when Koessel looked outside to see strangers snapping portraits of themselves in front of the home. And the one day when Koessel was out front when a small boy and his mom stopped in front of the home. The child pointed at the house in wonder, saying, “That’s a castle.”
One of the most vibrant, however was more private. In the morning, Judy and Al would sit at the dining room table having coffee. As sun shone through the beveled, leaded-glass windows, rainbows danced on the walls.
“Do you know how good that makes you feel?” Koessel said.
In the end, it was probably folly to build a neighborhood in a floodplain. And although a handful of families remain, it’s more of an outpost than a neighborhood now. But for Koessel, the good memories outweigh the bad.
“Alexander Watson really did create an idyllic place, but it never got the respect it deserved,” she said. “But we always recognized it as a special, special place.”
— Bob Uphues