Pulled Wright from the brink

Riverside's Olmsted Society honors Coonley Estate restoration effort

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By Bob Uphues


It took more than a year for John Farneda to feel "at home" in the formerly dilapidated home he and Stephanus Greeff had bought on Scottswood Road in Riverside. For months, Farneda had cursed the decision to buy the home, whose roof leaked like a sieve and whose stucco walls were crumbling around them.

"I had buyer's remorse dozens of times," said Farneda.

But Farneda and Greeff hadn't purchased just any old house. They'd bought a national treasure – the bedroom wing of Frank Lloyd Wright's Coonley Estate, part of a design that put an exclamation mark on the architect's Prairie style period.

And while Farneda estimates they've completed only about one third of the work that needs to be done on the house, the clouds parted for the former WXRT-FM music director one day in 2016 after finally finishing some renovations to the interior of the home.

The walls and ceiling in the dining area and living room were plastered and Farneda was able to set up his turntable. 

"That made it feel like home," he said.

A Rolling Stones devotee, Farneda's choice for the first song was "Gimme Shelter."

Though much remains to be done on the home, it can be stated clearly that Farneda and Greeff rescued the Coonley bedroom wing. While other portions of the Coonley Estate, such as the coach house and so-called "public" wing, were painstakingly restored by Dean and Ella Mae Eastman, the bedroom wing had been vacant for five years and in foreclosure when Farneda and Greeff bought it in May 2015.

Their efforts at restoration since that time earned them the 2017 Frederick Law Olmsted Society's Restoration Award, which they accepted at the society's annual meeting on Jan. 20.

"We are lucky they came along," said Sander Kaplan, a member of the Olmsted Society, Riverside Preservation commissioner and architect who along with fellow Olmsted member and architect Abby Randall presented the award to Farneda and Greeff. "It's always a work in progress, but everybody in the neighborhood is thrilled."

Kaplan, who lives across the street from the Coonley Estate in a home originally built to house teachers at the nearby Coonley School, said Frank Lloyd Wright employed "interesting engineering" when building the home, which can confound contemporary owners trying to restore them.

"Wright used methods that were not conventional for home building, and when you start to peel apart the stucco, you find all of these surprises," Kaplan said. 

Owning a Frank Lloyd Wright home was not the goal when Farneda, having lived in a condo in Chicago for many years after growing up in Lyons and attending Morton West High School in Berwyn, decided to leave WXRT in late 2014.

There were two options open – either move to Toronto, where Greeff was from, or move closer to Farneda's mom in Lyons.

"I noticed the tile," he said of the estate's distinctive geometric band of tile on the exterior walls.

As Farneda and Greeff were house hunting, they drove past the home and saw it was for sale. When their Realtor told them the price – they bought it for $355,000 – they decided to take the plunge.

"That's when the magic started to happen," Farneda said.

Had the home been located anywhere else, Farneda said, they probably wouldn't have bought it. But the forested setting and the unusually landscaped grounds, with hidden courtyards and sunken gardens, were irresistible.

There were the 80 to 90 art glass windows, several of them sold years ago and owned by the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy (the conservancy bought 26 windows in the living and dining rooms from the previous owner in 2003 for more money -- $390,000 – than Farneda and Greeff paid for the house.

They noted some of the problems, too – a garage that appeared close to falling down, buckled stucco walls and a dilapidated roof, but they committed to becoming stewards of the home, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"It was way, way, way worse than we thought," Farneda said. "Until you're in it, you don't see everything."

Case in point: the home's copper gutter system. According to Farneda, the copper gutters are more than a foot wide and set upon custom-built, V-shaped lumber supports fastened by metal brackets. The original brackets had corroded and gutters leaked into the ceiling and walls of the home, doing significant damage.

"Everything has to be custom-made," Farneda said. "But getting that and the roof done allowed everything else to happen."

Farneda said he relied on the expertise of Dean Eastman, who was able to suggest solutions, estimate costs and find contractors for the work. His assistance was invaluable.

"I couldn't have done it without him," Farneda said. "He was a very valuable resource."

Now that a good portion of the exterior renovation is complete, Farneda said, he has started to fully realize what it's like living in such a historic building.

"It's worth it to experience what it's like to live in a work of art," Farneda said. "It's not only the house; the grounds are stunning."

Farneda has also learned to live with architecture buffs who wander around, and sometimes into, the property, especially during the summer. One day a group of architecture students from Uruguay came to town to visit Wright sites. Farneda gave them a guided tour of the estate.

Word got around back in Uruguay, apparently, because the following year another group of architecture students appeared at his door.

"Part of the charm of owning a house like this is the people you meet," Farneda said.

Email: buphues@wjinc.com Twitter: @RBLandmark

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Reader Comments

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Comment Policy

James Shepro from lemont  

Posted: February 18th, 2017 6:54 PM

Hi, I'm Jim. I was born & raised in the "other half" of the Coonley Estate. My Parents owned 281 Bloomingbank from '57- '76. Despite conflicting accounts, My Mother, Jeanne Shepro, was THE ONE, that filed to make the Coonley Estate a National Historic Landmark, years before Wright's own home and studio in Oak Park, received the designation. The Howletts, Holts, and Dublinskis wanted nothing to do w/ it cause they were afraid they'd have to open their sections of the estate to the public. The big rock w/ the bronze plaque was dedicated on my birthday, Feb. 28, 1972. The dedication ceremony was held on this overcast day. None of the other estate owners were present. These days you call it "Restoration" and you get notoriety and praise. Years ago, the same thing was called maintenance and upkeep. My Mother loved every single thing about her home and FLW. She gave the Coonley Estate the ultimate gift of preservation-----a National Historic Landmark can never be demolished. I'd enjoy sitting w/ anyone of interest, to share my stories. I can fill a large gap in the history of FLW's Coonley Estate. 630-939-2001

Patrick Calby from Riverside  

Posted: February 8th, 2017 12:18 AM

Thanks for working to keep our town looking it's best and preserving things worth keeping.

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