Riverside landmark has close call in storm

Huge tree narrowly misses Coonley Playhouse

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By Bob Uphues


One of Riverside's historic landmarks narrowly missed being flattened by tree more than a century old, which was blown over by a gust of wind during a storm on June 24.

Ted Smith, who owns the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Coonley Playhouse at 350 Fairbank Road, said a "sudden, sustained, high-speed wind" whipped through the area just after 6 p.m. and toppled the bitter-nut hickory tree, which was 24 inches in diameter and had been on the property since before the Wright-designed building was constructed in 1912.

The tree, which was almost immediately adjacent to the home, fell diagonally across the front yard, taking down a linden tree and a catalpa tree with it.

"If it had fallen at 90 degrees [that is, directly east across the front of the house] it would've done a lot more damage," said Smith, who is a longtime member of the Riverside Preservation Commission. "It found a nice place to fall."

The playhouse originally was built to house the kindergarten run by Queene Ferry Coonley, the wife of Avery Coonley, a wealthy industrialist who had Wright design a sprawling home nearby in 1907.

The Coonleys soon moved the school to Downers Grove and the playhouse was converted into a residence in 1919 by William Drummond, an architect who previously had worked for Wright. Smith bought the home in 1980.

Smith said once the old tree is removed and its stump cleared he plans on planting a bitter-nut hickory seedling right where the old one stood.

"I'm going to put a seedling back in the hole and start another 100-year history," said Smith.

Riverside named the Coonley Playhouse a local landmark in 1993. It was designated an Illinois Historic Structure in 1972.

Email: buphues@wjinc.com Twitter: @RBLandmark

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