Riverside is about to have a fourth structure placed on the National Register of Historic Place after the members of the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council voted unanimously in favor of accepting the application for the Benda House at 211 Southcote Road on June 30.
The National Park Service is expected to formally adopt that finding in the next month or so, said Michelangelo Sabatino, who owns the home with Serge Ambrose. The couple spent four years restoring the International Style home, designed and built in 1938-39 by architect Winston Elting for Francis Benda and Sylvia Valha.
On June 30, during a virtual meeting of the Illinois Historic Site Advisory Council, Sabatino and Ambrose presented their application personally.
“For us it was kind of special,” said Sabatino of the experience. “Most clients have the people they hired make the presentation. In this case we were both the [contractor] and the client.
Sabatino is director of the Ph.D. program in architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology, while Ambrose is an architect/engineer.
The Benda House will join two Frank Lloyd Wright homes – the multi-building Coonley Estate, comprising 290 and 300 Scottswood Road, 281 Bloomingbank Road and 336 Coonley Road and the F.F. Tomek House at 150 Nuttall Road – and the mixed-use Arcade Building at 1 Riverside Road, designed around 1871 by Frederick Withers for the Riverside Improvement Company, which developed the village.
Both the Coonley Estate and Tomek House are also National Historic Landmarks, a separate designation given to places that “tell stories that are important to the history of the entire nation – not just local communities or states,” according to the National Park Service’s website.
The entire village of Riverside is also a National Historic Landmark for its landscape design by Frederick Law Olmsted.
Exhibition in the works
Sabatino’s experience researching and restoring his home also led to another project, an exhibition of photographs spotlighting about 30 Riverside homes built in the modern era, from the 1930s to the present.
He has been working with another Riverside resident, Kim Freeark, on the effort and has enlisted photographer Will Quam and graphic designer Dan Streeting to shoot the photos for the exhibit and design the catalog.
The exhibition is titled “Outside the Box: Modern and Contemporary Houses in Riverside” and will be on display in the FlexSpace gallery at the Riverside Arts Center from Sept. 10 through Oct. 21.
Asked if the exhibition was an outgrowth of his own journey restoring the Benda House, Sabatino said, “One hundred percent. The issue is everyone in Riverside is very proud of the homes from the 19th century up to the Prairie School. Everyone is justly proud of the Prairie School legacy but are not quite sure what to do with the modern stuff.”
The title of the exhibition gets at the crux of the challenge.
“Outside the box implies that the box is no good. The general public has tended to see ‘the box’ as inhibiting creativity,” Sabatino said. “Modern architects see the cube as something progressive and experimental.”
Sabatino said he also hopes the attention he’s giving to modern residential buildings in Riverside will raise awareness of their owners and “raise the bar” when it comes to stewardship of those homes.
“Our job is to empower them,” Sabatino said.
Quam, a Riverside resident who may be better known through his Instagram handle “Brick of Chicago,” said he’s photographed most of the homes to be featured in the exhibit, with one of his favorites being the 1986 postmodern design on Herrick Road just east of Longcommon Road.
“We’re good at recognizing great architecture once it’s old, but we’re bad at celebrating buildings when they are 10, 20, even 50 years old,” Quam said. “Riverside has great historic buildings. With the really new ones, we don’t see that future.
“We need the ability to recognize and celebrate buildings before they are in danger of being demolished.”