On Sept. 10, the Riverside Arts Center will kick off a photography exhibition that celebrates a selection of modern and contemporary houses of Riverside. While the event’s roots in the community are deep — guest co-curators Kim Freeark and Michelangelo Sabatino both own homes in Riverside — the exhibition in the RAC’s FlexSpace would not exist without collaborators from Forest Park and Oak Park. 

Liz Chilsen, executive director of the RAC, is a Forest Park-based artist, and  photographer Will Quam lives in Oak Park.

Sabatino, an architectural historian, preservationist, and faculty member in the College of Architecture at IIT, emphasizes that the exhibition is a collective effort, one that he says proves that “the burbs are not sleepy!”

“Having relied upon the collaboration of a local photographer, graphic designer and writers based in or nearby Riverside, this exhibition demonstrates that the western suburbs are alive with creative talent,” he says.

Chilsen agrees, saying that ethos sets the exhibit apart from the RAC’s typical shows. With most exhibits, the RAC provides a platform for artists to present their work, but in this case, staff and board members of the RAC contributed their creativity. “It’s been really inspiring,” she says.

“This exhibition is like the Arts Center itself. Volunteers worked to bring it into existence,” she says, pointing to Kim Freeark, whose parents Ruth and Robert founded the RAC in 1993.

Kim Freeark purchased her parents’ former home, an International Style home designed by architects John Vinci and Lawrence Kenny, in 1975 when she moved back to the area as an adult. When Chilsen called her asking if she had any ideas for an exhibit, Freeark says she was inspired by the town itself.

A self-described architecture nut, Freeark said she had set out to run every neighborhood of Riverside, and during those workouts was awestruck by the amazing architecture of the village and wanted to learn more. She thought it would be a great idea to do an exhibition based on the modern and contemporary houses of Riverside, and when she reached out to Sabatino, whose expertise is modern architecture, the project she says, “just grew and grew.”

They knocked on doors to see if homeowners would participate, and then they narrowed down their subjects to 30 houses built from the 1930’s to the present. An additional 5 honorable mentions are also included in the exhibition. 

The name of the exhibition came about from a brainstorm session between Sabatino and Freeark. She recalls, “He asked, ‘what’s the goal of our exhibition?’ I replied that I was looking for houses that were built by or inhabited by people who think outside the box.”

She adds with a laugh, “a subtitle of this could be ‘there goes the neighborhood.’ A lot of these houses were not understood by everyone at the time they were built.”

The oldest house in the exhibit was built in 1933 as part of the Century of Progress International Exhibition. It was a one-story “box” consisting of prefabricated panels when first built. Later owners added a second story, hipped roof and a stand-alone garage.

Another home was inspired by the original owner’s trip to the Paris Exposition in the late 1930’s. The French Regency-style home includes a dome on top and clerestory windows. Although the ornament may not be modern, the straightforward plan of the house certainly is.

Some of the modern homes have been altered from their original state. The former mid-century convent for St. Mary’s Catholic Church had 21 bedrooms and 14 bathrooms when the owners purchased it. They brought in the new owner’s architect brother to reimagine it as a single-family home.

Photographer Quam says he’s had a lifelong interest in architecture and was excited to help tell the story of Riverside’s twentieth-century residential architecture. He says each of the 35 homes was so unique that he took a different approach with each photograph.

“The tricky thing about Riverside is that the landscaping is such a big part of it,” he says, noting he had to be very intentional about siting the home in the landscape for the photos while adjusting the lighting due to the curves of Riverside’s streets.

Freeark, Sabatino and Chilsen note that the exhibit ties in with the efforts of many others in the community. Riverside homeowner and architect Andrew Obendorf created a set of 3-D printed models of a selection of the houses that will be included in the exhibition. Third-generation Riverside resident Bianca Buckzo will lead a walking tour featuring some of the homes, and RAC board member Dan Streeting designed the beautiful catalogue for the exhibition, which contains Quam’s photographs and stories of the homes and their owners.

When the exhibit closes, the images will be donated to the Riverside Historical Museum. Chilsen stresses the role the historical museum plays in the village, noting that it is both a great resource for residents while also a valuable place for residents to donate important records.

“People may be afraid that when they give something to the historical museum they will lose it, but they are actually saving it” she says.

For Freeark, the emphasis on architecture and landscape is part of what drives Riverside’s success as a small town. “This town is a magnet to a certain kind of person,” she says, noting that everyone seems to understand the importance of architecture. “You don’t see the McMansions and tear downs here. The whole town has some kind of mindset. Everybody loves their house.”

“People here take architecture and preservation seriously,” says Sabatino.

As homes that were once considered “outsiders” become part of the historical canon, Sabatino believes Riverside straddles a unique place in Chicagoland: “Even though the tenets of Olmsted and Vaux’s General Plan have remained, Riverside is not frozen in time. The abundance of interesting modern and contemporary houses demonstrates the degree with which architects and their clients were “thinking outside the box” and continue to do so even today.”

Important Details

Exhibition dates: Sept. 10 – Oct. 21, 2023
Location: Riverside Arts Center, 32 Quincy St., Riverside
Opening reception: Sunday, Sept. 10, 3 to 6 p.m.
Gallery hours: Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays 1 to 5 p.m.
Walking Tour: Saturday, Sept. 23, 1 to 3 p.m. Meet at the Riverside Train
Station. Led by Bianca Buczko

Publication: Outside the Box: Modern and Contemporary Houses in Riverside will be available for purchase at the opening reception and afterwards.

Panel discussion: Living in a Modern or Contemporary House in Riverside Wednesday, Oct. 18, 7 to 9 p.m. at the Riverside Public Library. An informal conversation highlighting contemporary and modern houses in Riverside with co-curators Kim Freeark and Michelangelo Sabatino, photographer Will Quam, Riverside homeowners. Event in collaboration with the Frederick Law Olmsted Society of Riverside (FLOS).

Website: https://www.riversideartscenter.com/flexspace/2023/09/-outside-the-box