A landmark burden

Homeowners didn't want historic status and problems it poses for buyers


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By Bob Uphues


In 1992, Jane and Ralph O'Donnell became the fifth owners of the Victorian cottage at 100 Fairbank Road in Riverside. They knew they were buying an old home. They didn't know they were buying a home that the village board a year later – and against their wishes – designated a local landmark.

Now, 28 years later, the O'Donnells want to sell the well-maintained, largely preserved 151-year-old cottage – they've been trying to sell it for the past decade – and they're finding it mighty hard to do so. 

When they first put the four-bedroom home on the market, it was listed north of $1 million. The asking price has plummeted to $599,000 and, while there have been inquiries, there have been no takers.

"What we'd like to do is sell the home at a fair value, so somebody could move into it and live the wonderful life that we've lived here and have the flexibility to do with it as they would do with purchasing a home," said Ralph O'Donnell in an interview last week. "That's all I want."

But, because the home was designated a local landmark by the Riverside Village Board in 1993, whoever owns the house can't alter any part of the exterior that's visible from the public right-of-way without getting approval from the Riverside Preservation Commission.

And, because of its location, at the corner of Fairbank and Barrypoint roads, the home has a 270-degree aspect from the public way. O'Donnell said that buyers have balked at the prospect of having to obtain planning permission to build a contemporary addition, even a sympathetic one, onto the rear of the house, which is visible from the street.

Now, the O'Donnells are asking the village of Riverside for some help. Specifically, they are looking for the Riverside Preservation Commission to clearly signal to a potential buyer that they're willing to consider approving a rear addition to the home – Ralph O'Donnell described such an addition as two-stories, tying into the upstairs master bedroom to allow for a new master bath above and an expanded kitchen and family room on the ground floor.

"We've had numerous people come … and say we'd like to do something to kind of bring the home to a more modern condition," O'Donnell told preservation commissioners at their meeting on Feb. 13. "There have been two opportunities that have walked away.

"What we're requesting of the board is to give clarity to a potential purchaser, that it's the front of the house that you're trying to maintain integrity to."

O'Donnell suggested that perhaps the commission could provide him with a written statement to that effect – something commissioners stopped short of agreeing to, although they indicated they were open to considering a rear addition to the home, though that would take someone hiring an architect and providing schematic drawings showing the plan.

Commissioner Kimber Coombes said commissioners see themselves as a resource to help solve problems.

"We're not the big, bad wolf," she said.

Whether that offer to work with a potential buyer on preliminary designs for an addition would be enough to move a sale along, however, isn't clear.

And, it's that uncertainty that's resulted in the O'Donnells having so much trouble making a sale. 

That's frustrated the couple, since they opposed the landmark designation from the start and objected for the record even after the village board made the designation, against their wishes, in 1993.

"We didn't buy a historic structure," Ralph O'Donnell said. "We bought a home to live in."

Their opposition was well-documented at the time. An article in a 1993 edition of the Landmark featured the O'Donnells' opposition.

"You can't tell me what I can and cannot do without my support," O'Donnell was quoted as telling the village board. The Suburban Life also published a story describing O'Donnell's protest against making his home a local landmark.

In the end, the village board on April 19, 1993 voted 4-2 to designate 100 Fairbank Road a local landmark. The decision left the O'Donnells feeling the village seized something of value from them. Ideally, they'd like the designation removed.

"If I seized your home you'd have the same concerns I have about the rights that I have as an owner," O'Donnell told preservation commissioners on Feb. 13. "We're not questioning that the home has got value. What we're asking is: What are you trying to maintain?"

There are 70 buildings that have been designated local historic landmarks in Riverside, often with the blessing of their owners. Many of the local landmarks, like 100 Fairbank Road, are homes that date back to early Riverside, prior to its incorporation as a municipality, when it was a country retreat for titans of Chicago finance, industry and politics.

And the vast majority of those landmarks don't have the geographic prominence of 100 Fairbank Road, whose picturesque location was specifically noted in the Riverside Improvement Company's sales pamphlet "Riverside in 1871, with a Description of its Improvements."

Accompanying an engraving of the home, easily recognizable a century and a half later, is a description of the picturesque home.

"The situation is a very fine one, the church with its broad grounds on one side – the river and Picnic Island on the other, with a view extending to the Depot and Water Tower."

The home was built as a summer retreat for John C. Dore, the first superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools, president of the Chicago Board of Trade and an Illinois state senator.

Its designer was Calvert Vaux, a partner in the firm Olmsted, Vaux & Co., hired in 1869 by the Riverside Improvement Company to plan Riverside itself.

Dore chose a prime location for his country home, which is set on a pair of lots fronting both Fairbank Road and Barrypoint Road. Many of the homes built around the same time present only the front façade or perhaps the front and sides. The rear facades, however, are often not visible from the street and some have been extensively altered at the rear through the years.

The Dore Cottage largely has remained untouched. There's some uncertainty as to whether the existing rear wing is a later addition; the engraving from 1871 shows a rear wing that's similar.

The village's Preservation Ordinance does include language allowing for the possibility that a landmark designation could be rescinded, a process that would involve a recommendation from the Preservation Commission and a village board vote.


Email: buphues@wjinc.com Twitter: @RBLandmark

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Reader Comments

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Fred Mertz  

Posted: February 27th, 2020 4:58 PM

Marie Ellemund, the long time owner of this house before the Millers acquired it, was a very interesting woman. During the 1940's she rented out rooms in this house, like many people who had more house than they needed. The 1940 census shows that 4 of the 5 boarders living here then were young woman, who worked in the clubs in Lyons, either as dancers or hostesses. By the 1960's Miss Ellemund had become the local "cat" lady, as her house and yard were filled with unwanted cats she took in, and cared for. She would also open her house on Halloween for a party for the local children. Very sweet woman.

Margaret Miller from Urbana  

Posted: February 27th, 2020 1:29 PM

Mr. O'Donnell is mistaken. I lived in this house with my parents, Wm. and Doris Miller, and it was a National Historic Landmark at that time. My parents worked hard to preserve the house as an historic landmark and held many open houses acknowledging that. I hope someone who values old homes will choose to buy this beautiful home we love so well. Perhaps they could restore the beautiful historic wildflower gardens which surrounded it the home and which were so lovingly cared for my mother and Miss Marie Ellemung, ther previous owner. This home deserves someone who understands the treasure it truly is. Margaret Miller

Eddie-Sue Kozoyed  

Posted: February 26th, 2020 7:07 PM

The Village should allow the owners to Air B&B the house to people interested in Olmstead and architecture who would likely be thrilled to spend a few days in one of the first homes in the first division. We think it could more than pay Riverside's ridiculously high taxes. It's also possible that someone staying a day or two might want to make it their own.

Riia Odonnell  

Posted: February 26th, 2020 3:59 PM

Could they put up a fence or rows of trees blocking 2 of the 4 facades from public view? Then you could add on to the rear of the house possibly...

Earl Hickey  

Posted: February 26th, 2020 10:23 AM

I these owners have not thought of it already , I suggest a lawsuit against the village of riverside for placing this unreasonable burden on them. they should ask for removal of the designation or in the alternative the Village could pay them $1 million and then use the house for the Riverside Museum.

Helen Vogel  

Posted: February 26th, 2020 9:55 AM

While a tax break would be nice, it doesn't solve their problem of not being able to sell the house. While the home continues on and off the market, the owners may be able to recruit a newly licensed architect to take up the cause? Draft some preliminary plans for an addition that would satisfy the plan commission and get them approved for a potential buyer. The commission is concerned about the exterior, not the interior, so design something that matches the current exterior facade and let the new home owner finish the interior design. What have you got to lose, time? You've already lost years with it on the market. Anyone ever affiliated with a historic home knows that they are very difficult to sell, even more so now. To Commissioner Coombes- if you are indeed a "resource to help solve problems", then do so! This couple and others like them need a champion on their side. Are you that person?

Fred Mertz  

Posted: February 25th, 2020 7:33 PM

The Village should give these historic homes a healthy tax break, that would help sell them.

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