Behind the Facade: the Last Silsbee House

Vol. XVII No. 2 - SUMMER 2006

By: LeRoy Blommaert

The Sovereign Nursing Home at 6159 N. Kenmore. From the front it looks like a home among the 4+1 apartment buildings along the block – 3 stories, yellow brick, and 1960s modern; but look behind it from the alley and it is apparent that it is also a house – or more accurately the rear portion of a house.

When EHS member and realtor Susan Darnall called me to tell me that the property had been purchased by a developer that she knew, I was intrigued. Even though it had been a nursing home for 50 years, there was a chance – a slim chance to be sure – that there was something of the original house left – some molding and a few doors perhaps, or maybe even a fireplace mantel and a hutch and a staircase. Why not wish for it all! Would it be possible to go inside? She said she would ask. And the answer came back “sure”; and so, one March morning, Susan and I and EHS member Mark Palermo along, with architect and Silsbee historian Chris Payne, were let in by its new owner, James Ronan.

Before that happened, though, I did a little research on the house (actually, a lot!). Why I didn’t do it earlier? I don’t know. I can’t explain it. What I found surprised and very much pleased me. The house was one of the four earliest houses in North Edgewater – all built on Kenmore for Edgewater’s founding father, John L. Cochran, at the same time. The permits were issued October 8, 1890. This house (block 10, lot 27) was on its own permit. The other three houses were on a separate permit and there was also a separate permit for the construction of a depot at North Edgewater (now Granville) issued on the same date. Since it has been established that Cochran’s first architect, Joseph L. Silsbee, designed the depot and two of the other three houses, one can conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Silsbee also designed this house. There is a reference in the October 11, 1890 issue of The Economist to four houses to be designed by Silsbee for Cochran. Cochran sold the house and lot relatively quickly – in January 1891 – to Richard L. Duvall. This was presumably before the house was finished. The Duvall family lived in the house from 1891 until sometime in late 1899 or early 1900.

To back track: When we entered the building, we did not know what to expect, though our anticipation and excitement were high. We found no grand staircase; the only staircase was in the rear and may well have been the servants but it was obviously not the original. We found no front parlors either; they must have been removed when the house was converted to nursing home use and the brick addition added to the front. However, to our amazement and delight, the dining room was intact and included a built-in hutch, a fireplace, a set of bookcases on either side of the fireplace and full wood wainscoting along the walls. Remarkably, though the dining room had been used as a patients’ bedroom, it had survived without change or damage. Even the four glass bookcase doors were intact. Only the finish had been changed – painted a light blue.

I asked the owner, Jim Ronan, whether he would be willing to donate the dining room items to the Edgewater Historical Society. He said “sure.” And so began an interesting though stressful journey. Immediately, I was faced with two questions: how would we get the items out and where we would put them once we got them. And then there was the nagging question: would the Society’s Board be as enthusiastic as I was.

The first question was how would we get them out. There were basically only two options: (1) try to do it ourselves as volunteers and (2) hire someone to do it for us. Since neither I nor those who might volunteer had any experience in this area, and since if we tried to learn in doing, we might well – and probably would – damage the items in the process of removing them. That didn’t seem to be a very good option. Hence, the only alternative was to hire someone. But who? I asked EHS member and architect/renovator Thom Greene for advice. He suggested I talk with Matt Stern, with whom we had already contracted to do work on the museum’s kitchen. This I did immediately and, after talking with him for less than five minutes, I became convinced that he was the man for the job – he had done similar work, had the proper tools, exuded a quiet confidence that he could do the job and do it well and was an Edgewater resident with an appreciation for quality workmanship and Edgewater’s history. It wouldn’t be just a “job” for him.

The second hurdle was overcome when the Board approved, by an email vote, an expenditure for the removal costs. Next came the problem of scheduling the removal. After some initial difficulties, we finally decided upon April 6 as “R” day. Susan Darnall had arranged with Jim Ronan to pick up the keys the day before. I spent most of the day with Matt as he skillfully removed all the pieces. It looked so easy when he was doing it. In less than five hours, it was all taken down. Interestingly, there were pieces of wallpaper behind the bookcases and wainscoting, suggesting that perhaps at least these pieces might have been added later. But then again, maybe not. My efforts to secure the use of a truck for free had not been successful, so I had to rent one. As it turned out this was just as well. We would need it far longer than we thought.

During the day, I had helped Matt by removing nails from the wood pieces. He showed me how to do it without damaging the wood. Susan came back in the afternoon and EHS member Tom Murphy joined us. A parking space opened up right in front, and Susan persuaded us to move the truck into it. It was a wise move. We loaded the truck with the wainscoting and the various pieces of wood that surrounded the big pieces as well as the glass doors to the bookcases. The big pieces – the hutch and the fireplace mantle – were just too big and heavy for us to move by ourselves. Matt suggested that we postpone that operation until the next day when he would be able to get help. Fortunately for us, Matt had previously retained some men to do some work for him. They could help Matt move the big stuff in the morning. Susan suggested that we lock the truck and just leave it there overnight – which is what we did.

Early next morning, we joined Matt and his helpers. Within short order they carefully loaded the big pieces onto the truck and made them secure. We were ready to roll. But where to? EHS member Marsha Holland had agreed to temporarily store one of the items in the back of her garage, but is was clear that both the hutch and the fireplace surround were too large to fit. Only the bookcases would fit. I had not been able to secure another site in the short time available, and so the decision was made to store both the hutch and fireplace at the museum. There was no alternative. And so I drove the truck very slowly to the museum. After the pieces were unloaded, I drove to Marsha’s, walked over to Matt’s place and he came and unloaded the bookcases (minus glass doors) and placed them in the back of Marsha’s garage. From there it was to my place where Tom Murphy helped me unload the wainscoting and various (and plentiful) wood trim pieces into my garage. The final step was to return the rental truck and take CTA home. It had been a long day and I was exhausted, even though most of the heavy lifting had been done by others.

No decision has yet been made as to the ultimate disposition of the salvaged items; there is some sentiment to keep one of the items and sell the others. In the interim, they may be seen at the museum. They look more impressive in person than in the photographs. (Don’t we all!)

Demolition began Monday, June 19, and was concluded, at least for the house, by Friday. I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, one of Edgewater’s oldest houses, the oldest in Cochran’s Edgewater, a very substantial house and the last surviving house designed by Cochran’s first architect Joseph L. Silsbee, was no more. But, on the other hand, we had been able to inspect the house before it was torn down and remove all the items that were worth salvaging. In addition – and probably most compelling – there would have been no basis for trying to save it; it’s front half had been demolished over 50 years ago. What remained was only half a house.

Note: Come to the Museum to see the mantelpiece and buffet.