When your house is over 100 years old, it’s holding a lot of history, as Kathy Garness and her family discovered when they delved into their home’s ‘life story.’
Garness, and her son Ian, 17, have lived in the same house since 1989. It often offered them clues to its age?”patched floorboards, remains of coal heat in the basement, many coats of paint and old style electric.
One day, in between her artwork and raising a son, Garness set out to find out about the house, and along the way found out much about her neighborhood and the history of Forest Park than she ever expected.
For starters, she discovered that Forest Park was not Forest Park until 1907. It started out as Harlem, established in 1856, named after the hometown of its founder, John Henry Quick.
More searching, uncovered the names to the tribes of this area. Potowatomie, Sauk and Fox all lived and hunted here, and used the crest of a glacial dune, now DesPlaines Avenue, as their trail.
Furthermore, their dead were buried in mounds (now protected) along the DesPlaines River, many in what is now Forest Home Cemetery.
Garness wanted to find out how her property came to the hands of the original builders, and was greatly aided in her search by the Forest Park Historical Society.
The land that would become Illinois was originally part of the Northwest Territory, parts of which were set aside as land grants to Veterans of the War of 1812.
Many of these veterans, settled residents of eastern states, had no desire to move and sold their vouchers.
That is where Elijah Hubbard entered the picture. Hubbard, arriving in 1834, set up a partnership with Gurdon and Henry Hubbard, buying much of the land that would become Forest Park.
They sold to Elihu and Eliza Townsend, who later sold a parcel to the Galena & Chicago Union Rail Company for their right of way.
In 1848 this railroad, Chicago’s first, went between Chicago and the Des Plaines River, and soon became part of the Chicago & North Western.
In 1872, the railroad sold lots from their right of way. Joachim and Sophie Buenger bought the lot on Lathrop and, shortly after, built a home for themselves and their (eventually) six children. Enter the 100-year-old house on the [former] prairie.
Garness said she was fascinated by the details contained the records she read. They even showed Buenger, and his brothers Frederick and Henry worked in a grocery store on Madison, that sold the produce they had raised.
This house was born as a simple two story square farmhouse, divided roughly into quarters both upstairs and down, grounded with a foundation of locally quarried limestone blocks.
One quarter (a small one) was the front stairs and entry hall, the second the ‘front room’ or living room.
The kitchen was behind the living room, and next to the master bedroom. A ‘quick exit’ door joined the bedroom to the front hall, which Garness said is common in many houses of this era.
Upstairs the space was divided into three bedrooms. No bathrooms: When this house was built, water arrived through a hand pump in the kitchen, and the facilities were in a small house out back.
Thirty years into its life, this farmhouse expanded, to handle a bigger family and incorporate new technology ?” plumbing!
A large two story addition, the full width of the house and about 17 feet deep, added four rooms and two bathrooms.
On the first floor, this new space was split between kitchen and laundry-pantry-storeroom, with a slice of this space used for the bathroom.
Upstairs the addition included a second full kitchen, an extra room and another full bathroom.
Along the way the door to the original kitchen became an arch to the new dining room and closets were added to the all bedrooms.
Garness figured out much of this as she painstakingly peered into cupboards and closets, and solved the puzzle of floorboards and wood trim?”matching and not.
Another change was the “grossmutter” or grandmother house, a small two story cottage, built around 1905 at the alley end of the lot.
By this time, the original house had become home to Sophie Buenger’s grown children and their families, so she moved to her own place, very close and still separate.
In the 1940s, when the Buengers moved out, the front house and back house were sold separately.
One family bought the house facing Lathrop, and another bought the grandmother cottage, currently occupied by that buyer’s son.
The house facing Lathrop evolved into the home plus rental unit that Garness owns.
Surprisingly, Kathleen Garness is only the fifth owner.
This house has always been a work in progress and Garness has continued this process.
Originally coal heated, she converted the house from oil to gas.
“The company managed to get two enormous oil tanks out of the basement,” she remembers, “and the space in the basement doubled!”
She replaced the original windows, sorry to lose the historic glass, but delighted with the warmer home, and the lower heating bills.
She also rebuilt her back porch and the stairs to the rental unit. She has dry walled, brought the electric up to code, painted and papered.
Her son’s room is a tribute to IKEA and teenage electronics, and her living room includes a gallery wall devoted to her recent artwork.
Garness is a talented botanical illustrator.
Last February, she had a show at the River Forest Library, and past exhibits include the Chicago Botanical Garden, the Morton Arboretum and the Oak Park Conservatory, where she also volunteers.
Her work has been published in the Native Orchid Conference Journal, and other venues.
She monitors rare plants through a program at the Chicago Botanical Garden, and is proud that she was President of the Palette & Chisel Academy of Fine Arts.
One of Garness’ life goals is documenting the 43 orchids native to Illinois, a challenging pursuit.
So far, she has seen 12 in situ, and illustrated six.
Many orchids are endangered; therefore they must be drawn in the field, and visited often to record both bud and bloom.
Her interest in orchids extends to painting tropical orchids, and one recent work?”of the Acanthephippium mantinianum?”is going to Oregon to join an exhibit of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators.
However, without question, Garness says that her most challenging project, on the house or with orchids, was the recently completed kitchen renovation.
“I stared at the kitchen for 15 years,” says Garness.
An artist, her mental pictures have form and shape, but when the mental pictures turned into plans and purchases, the only thing that stayed the same was the location of the sink, and even that needed reworked piping.
The kitchen was ‘modernized’ in the 40s, updated with metal cabinets, enameled sink and a large double oven gas stove.
The refrigerator was small and fit into an alcove next to the stove.
Fast forward a few years, and a new larger fridge won’t fit into the alcove. In fact, the only spot of wall large enough to take the appliance is the wall facing the back door.
This was issue number one.
Issue number two was a desire for visual separation between the kitchen and the storage room/laundry, where she stores her large library of art books and supplies. Originally two rooms, the wall had been removed.
Issue number three was the size of the stove, while issue number four was the condition of the metal cabinetry. After 60 plus years of service, drawers were sticking and doors were no longer quite square.
Having clearly defined the problems with her kitchen, the goal was to find a layout which solved all these issues.
Garness said that her artist’s eye, and 15 years of pondering layouts resulted in a perfect kitchen.
In her redesigned kitchen, the stove is smaller, a standard 4-burner, and the refrigerator moved into the corner furthest from the door.
Cabinetry is light wood, with simple flat panel doors. One cabinet features glass panels to highlight special china, and drawers abound.
Her whimsy and naturalistic leanings are evident in the branch handles chosen for her cabinets, the many plants covering almost every surface and the easel with her work in progress in the center of the floor.
The wall between kitchen and laundry was only partially rebuilt. Garness decided to leave an opening, which she filled with an airy plate rack. The borrowed light shines through colored glass on its shelves.
On to the future
She was delighted when the new kitchen performed as well and better than expected during her annual St. Patrick’s Day dinner, and looks forward to many more gatherings.
During its life, this house has welcomed each family, which in turn changed the house to fit the times and the household.
But on thing is clear, this little house is certainly ready for the 21st century.