Terry Steinbach and her husband Tony Sarley have proven that you can go home again. The couple has lovingly restored Steinbach’s childhood home, a house where Sarley had often been a guest during his boyhood.
They are only the third owners of the large frame at 541 Thomas that was built in the 1880s.
The Hosler family originally owned the home, before Joan and Andy Steinbach bought it in 1961. The house was purchased from Steinbach’s parents in 1999 and they have spent the last six years bringing it back to its “Gay 90s” glory.
Last April, they received a Forest Park Pride Award for their efforts.
From the house’s veranda style front porch, Garfield School is clearly visible a block away. That is where the happy homeowners first met”in 4th Grade music class. Steinbach was studying the trombone, while Sarley played the trumpet. Though they drifted apart for a quarter of a century, the couple reunited in 1998 and married on Labor Day, 2004.
The old homestead on Thomas easily accommodated their 120 wedding guests. By that time, the house had already become a symphony of colors and rustic charm.
Prior to the restoration, however, the house had fallen on hard times. Asphalt shingles covered the clapboard exterior and, in the 1940s, the house had been converted to a two-flat.
“The house was still structurally sound,” Sarley recalled, “So, we started by putting on a new roof.”
From there, they tackled projects on a priority basis, although they had a few arguments about what constituted a priority. In Steinbach’s book, the most immediate need was the installation of central air conditioning.
After creating a comfortable living space with the installation of a new bathroom and restoration of an old bedroom, the owners concentrated on the exterior of the house.
“It was a hodgepodge,” Sarley admitted, “Until we built the wraparound porch.”
The porch is so large it has over 300 spindles. The original bead board ceiling over the porch was also restored. Much of this work was done by R & M Construction, a company operated by Jimmy Jodoin, proprietor of Jimmy’s Place. Jodoin later said that Steinbach and Sarley had been great people to work with.
“They did things right and didn’t cut any corners,” Jodoin said.
In fact, Sarley has sometimes been accused of being a perfectionist. Although he is in the road building business, Sarley is skilled in construction and also designed some of the house’s unique features.
It was Sarley’s idea to restore the clapboard siding, rather than covering it in vinyl, like many homeowners have done. Protecting this wood required an expert paint job, which was applied by the same company that painted the Hemingway house in Oak Park.
The house was decorated in seven different colors but Sarley said there was nothing superficial about the paint job.
“It was part of the construction process. They repaired wood, filled in cracks and effectively sealed the house,” he said.
Meanwhile, the couple was discovering treasures inside the house. Their greatest find were the pocket doors leading to the front parlor. According to the original crumbling blueprints, these doors existed, but the entire doorway had been plastered over.
“We followed the cracks to find the old doorway,” Steinbach recalled.
Once the masonry had been removed, the doors were found recessed into the walls. They were equipped with ornate hardware from Peoria and moved on rails that had been forged by an Aurora blacksmith.
Sarley repaired the rails, stripped the surrounding woodwork and matched it with the rich natural stain of the doors.
Another discovery in the parlor was a stained glass window that had been covered up.
Steinbach liked the design of this front window so much she commissioned Two Fish to make a replica for the side window. The pattern is also repeated in a stained glass window in the living room.
A doorway off the living room leads to the back porch, which used to be divided into two bedrooms.
As a child, Steinbach had one bedroom and her brother slept in the other. In similar fashion, the space is now divided into two offices, one for Steinbach, one for Sarley.
When they removed the drop ceiling, they found the original bead board, which they are in the process of refinishing.
The kitchen had no less than seven doors, one of which leads to the house’s rear staircase, which served as the servant’s stairs.
Steinbach had a soapstone sink installed. It’s Chicago-style circa 1850 and its unique feature is that stains can be sanded out. The kitchen’s slate floor can also be sanded.
Sarley designed the kitchen, which includes a decorative plate rack to display their China.
The dining room has a 30-year-old parquet floor that was installed by Steinbach’s late father. They considered removing it, until Sarley found it to be indestructible.
Instead, they refinished the floor and it looks as good as new. They also had the house’s plaster walls repaired. Steinbach was happy they were able to use local tradesmen on all of their projects.
The second floor of the house, until recently a separate apartment, is being converted into bedrooms and bathrooms. The guest bedroom is furnished cottage style.
Steinbach mentioned that most of her decorating touches came from the Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware. The master bedroom and bathroom are still under construction.
The couple also plans to install a spiral staircase leading from the second floor to the attic. They envision the full-size attic being converted into a loft.
A door off the guest bedroom leads to the house’s second floor deck.
“We watched the 4th of July fireworks from the deck,” Steinbach said.
A rear staircase leads down to the house’s rear deck which looks out on a 3,000 gallon Koi fishpond, complete with waterfall. The sound of the falling water is so soothing that Steinbach kept the waterfall running all winter.
At the rear of the house is a brick garage that formerly served as a carriage house.
The couple also turned their attention to the house’s front yard.
Sarley poured his own public sidewalk to replace the old deteriorated slabs. Most unique of all, though, was his installation of a boardwalk leading from the street around the side of the house. He said he got the idea from seeing a boardwalk in a vintage photograph of the house.
Steinbach plans to plant a flower garden in the front yard but right now the only decoration is an old street sign bearing the names Thomas and Jackson.
The Village of Forest Park presented the sign to Steinbach’s parents, when the cobblestone surface of Thomas was repaved with asphalt.
The couple hopes to have all of their projects completed within a year. As for priorities”they’re right on schedule: The guest bedroom is all ready for a grandchild that is expected soon.