A historic 125-year-old home in Riverside Lawn, described by former owner Judy Koessel as “waiting to be saved,” burned down early Thursday morning.
At 1:48 AM, firefighters responded to the call and were warned en route that the structure was “totally involved,” said Lyons fire chief Gordon Nord. The cause of the fire was still under investigation, he said. The house wasn’t connected to a natural gas line, and neighbors and Koessel said it was frequented by squatters who had done a bunch of damage to the house even before the fire, in part because the county did a poor job of boarding it up.
The stone home was designed and built in 1893 by Alexander Watson, who went on to live in it himself. (Watson also built the first pedestrian bridge to cross the river in the historic western suburb.)
The house had been preserved to keep the original woodwork and stained-glass windows. Koessel says the stone Victorian home was “very significant” and had been in spectacular condition.
But the house was one of nearly two dozen located in a floodplain, and in 2016 the Cook County Land Bank Authority slated it for demolition. The land bank was required to conduct an architectural survey before destroying the homes, and Koessel’s home, at 3744 Stanley Ave., was determined to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. At one point a county official even told Koessel in an e-mail that the home could be used as a “Forest Preserve house or office.” The demolition was put on hold.
Rob Rose, executive director of the Cook County Land Bank, said Thursday evening that the county had been awaiting word on what to do about the house from the Illinois State Preservation Agency.
“When we found out that this house was eligible, we sent the paperwork to the state agency,” Rose said. “We were in a holding pattern waiting for the next step.”
He added: “When we hear one of our buildings burned down, we’re not happy about it or anything.
The state agency had earlier asked about the feasibility of moving the home, but Rose said it was too expensive.
“We did a cost-benefit analysis of relocation and determined it wasn’t feasible with the cost of land and moving,” he said.
Officials with the Illinois State Preservation Agency couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday.
The house also featured a mural by William de Leftwich Dodge, an American artist best-known for his mural in the Library of Congress. Koessel discovered this only when a previous owner pointed out the signature in the corner of the mural in the house.
“I put his name into the computer and a bunch of stuff came up,” said Koessel. “[I] saw a black-and-white photo, and it had the same figures in a painting that my mural had in it. And it said it was at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago 1893.”
After 15 years of research, Koessel determined her mural was the model for Dodge’s larger mural for the Administration Building at the fair. The mural was removed from the house in July 2016 and cleaned and repaired. The Newberry Library plans to feature it at an exhibit in the fall, she said.
(Story continues below.)
But the rest of the home hasn’t fared as well. After the county took it over when Koessel left in October 2016, the house was repeatedly broken into and vandalized, Koessel and neighbors said.
“The house was in pretty good shape after we left,” Koessel said. “But then, in the early spring, problems started. The biggest problem is that the county did come through and board up the windows and the doors. But they didn’t do the basement windows—which anybody who knows how to protect your house, the basement is the most likely place where people will break in.”
Koessel said she became aware of the break-in when she saw paint splattered across the garage, the same color she’d used to repair chipped and cracked walls. She knew that vandals had made their way through the entire house when she saw scattered copies of Connoisseur magazine taken from her husband’s drawing studio in the attic laying outside.
“I called the county, and the next day they came and boarded up the basement windows,” continued Koessel. “I thought maybe there wouldn’t be any more damage. But evidently through that summer and fall, somebody took their time and pried off one of the basement windows.”
Because the house wasn’t receiving electricity, the pumps Koessel used to keep it from flooding weren’t running.
“That basement was filled with water at least seven or eight times,” said Koessel. “What a shame, what a shame, what a shame.”
Rose said the county hadn’t secured the basement windows because “they didn’t think someone would fit.” Following the initial break-in he says he instituted biweekly inspections designed to prevent vandalism and squatting. He said those found no evidence of anyone being inside the home in the weeks leading up to the fire.
Neighbors disputed that, however. In interviews, they told the Reader there were signs that someone had been inside in recent days.
And Koessel says her former neighbors told her the same thing.
“They’d say, ‘Judy, it gets rocking and rolling in that house so crazy sometimes that we’re, like, afraid to live [here] anymore,’ so I wanted it torn down so that these people, my neighbors, could feel safe again,” she said.
Because of all the damage to the home after she left, Koessel said she wasn’t sad to see her former “fairy-tale” home burn.
“Honestly, I’m happy. I’m glad,” she said Thursday. “It was so hard to see the house in decline.”