Historic Riverside Lawn home destroyed by fire

Cause being investigated, but blaze appears 'suspicious'

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The last historic home left standing in Riverside Lawn burned to the ground during the early morning hours of June 28, ending for good any speculation about whether it or any part of it would be saved for posterity.

Firefighters were called to 3744 Stanley Ave. in unincorporated Riverside Township about 1:50 a.m., according to Lyons Fire Chief Gordon Nord. By the time engines arrived, the house was completely engulfed in flames, he said.

Because the house has been vacant for more than a year and the protective metal shutters over the house's lower-floor windows appeared not to have been breached, firefighters concentrated on putting out the blaze from outside.

"There was no apparent sign that anyone got in, and even so, at that point, we deemed it as a defensive fire from the get-go," Nord said.

Firefighters made sure to prevent the fire from spreading to nearby trees in the heavily forested area and protected the inhabited house that sits just south of 3744 Stanley Ave.

Nord said the fire was being investigated by the Illinois State Fire Marshal and Cook County Sheriff's Police. While no cause has been announced, officials have not ruled out that it may have been set intentionally.

"We find it suspicious, being it was a vacant house on fire," Nord said.

On June 2, Nord said he believed the state fire marshal has classified the cause of the fire as "undetermined." The fire marshal's office did not return a call from the Landmark prior to the newspaper's print deadline.

The house still had live electrical service, Nord said, but the natural gas line had been disconnected.

The Cook County Land Bank, which owns the home, erected a fence around the home the afternoon of the fire. On July 3, it was demolished.

Several agencies responded to the blaze, including firefighters from Riverside, Brookfield, McCook, Bedford Park and LaGrange.

Kathie Schaefer, whose home is about a half block south of 3744 Stanley Ave., said that about an hour before learning of the fire she had heard loud bangs, like doors slamming. She went outside to check on her garage to make sure it was secure, but she didn't notice anything out of the ordinary at the time.

A car she heard speeding southbound on Stanley Avenue around that same time also did not seem particularly suspicious, said Schaefer, since the remaining handful of abandoned homes in the neighborhood were attractive nuisances.

The house at 3744 Stanley Ave. had attracted vandals in the past. Paint had been thrown around the interior by someone who managed to get inside at one point, and the house had also been tagged with graffiti and had rocks thrown through its windows.

Another Riverside Lawn house still yet to be demolished, on Gladstone Avenue a block to the east, is fenced off, but the overhead garage door appears to have been forced open, allowing easy entry.

"We get a lot of cars and activity back here at night," Schaefer said.

About an hour after "door slams," Schaefer said she heard something that sounded like glass smashing. It was the sound of windows blowing out of the house at 3744 Stanley Ave. as it went up in flames.

"It looked like somebody just poured gasoline all over it," Schaefer said. "It was engulfed. I mean, it was just amazing."

The house at 3744 Stanley Ave. was among the oldest built in Riverside Lawn. It was constructed in the 1890s by Alexander Watson, the man responsible for developing the neighborhood, much of which lies in a flood plain on the south bank of a sharp bend in the Des Plaines River north of 39th Street and east of Joliet Avenue.

Built of field stone and sporting a picturesque corner turret, the house was among about 20 properties purchased within the past two years by the Cook County Land Bank as part of a buy-out program to rid the flood-prone area of homes.

While most of the houses bought by the county have already been demolished, the one at 3744 Stanley Ave. was left standing after it was deemed eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Marcy Prchal, an architectural historian for the Public Service Archaeology and Architecture Program at the University of Illinois, conducted an architectural survey of the home last year on behalf of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

"The thing about that house is that it was so intact and such a representation of what [Riverside Lawn] was," Prchal said in a phone interview. "It was locally significant."

That study concluded the home at 3744 Stanley Ave. was eligible for the National Register. In the wake of that determination, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency asked the Cook County Land Bank to do additional review of the building before it would greenlight the use of federal funds for demolition.

Judy Koessel and her husband, Al, had lived in Alexander Watson's old home for 17 years before selling to the county.

As sad as the fire was, Judy Koessel said, it has finally resolved the building's future — which she said was always heading toward demolition.

"I don't believe there was anything else to do but demolish it," Koessel said, adding that converting it to some public use would have been impossible given the repeated flooding. The vandalism had also taken its toll.

"The more I think about it, the better I feel," Koessel said. "The house had to go down eventually. I knew they couldn't seriously do anything to save it."

Rob Rose, executive director of the Cook County Land Bank, told the Landmark that his agency and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency agreed that moving the home to another location would be cost-prohibitive.

However, no additional review of the home had taken place since last summer. Rose said the Cook County Land Bank was awaiting for additional direction from the IHPA.

"From our standpoint, we were waiting to see what else we needed to do to comply with [the IHPA's] wishes," Rose said, regarding direction on what, if anything, the county needed to salvage from the home as part of its review of the property. "We felt we were in queue."

Rose acknowledged that people had entered the home and vandalized it over time, but that his agency "tried to secure it as best we could to prevent folks from getting in the house."

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