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The Old House on Prairie
Historical Notes by George Paterson
Go here for pictures.

In January of 1885, Grover Cleveland took the presidential oath of office. Later that year, a French ship sailed into New York Harbor bearing the Statue of Liberty (some assembly required), and Mark Twain scandalized some Americans and delighted others with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Meanwhile a tiny settlement of a few hundred souls in a wooded area north of Chicago was putting down the roots of what would be a thriving suburb of 27,000 in a little over a century. Our property is a part of that early history. Like the suburb around it, the house has changed with the times, but its underlying structure was hammered together over a century ago by the area’s pioneers, and its street profile is very little changed from what it was back then. Today, however, it boasts a brass plaque, issued by the Wilmette Historical Society, attesting to its origins circa 1885.

The 1885 date is necessarily approximate, given the spotty nature of surviving documents, but old tax records, village directories, and the style of the building (known to architectural historians as “Folk American”), combine to establish a clear window of origin from the 1870s to the 1890s. Currently the Cook County Assessor puts the age of the house at 122 (a construction date of 1893) but assessors records are not always reliable, and construction could have been as early as 1873, the date when the lot was platted. Village directories began to be published in 1890, and the one for 1898 shows the property to have been occupied in that year by an Andrew (or Andres) Roesner and his wife Helena (nee Knobel). These are the earliest residents we can identify by name. What was Wilmette like in the 1880s and 90s? George D. Bushell, in his Wilmette, a History (1976), refers to “a scattered settlement of houses surrounded by thick woods and huddled within a few blocks of the depot” that was on the verge of transformational growth. He notes that in 1887 there were only about 700 people living here. Many immigrants from Germany were beginning to settle in the area, however, and small workingmen’s cottages, carpenter-built and without adornments, were springing up to house them. One such was 155 Prairie.

The first pastor of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Father William Netstraeter (himself an immigrant from Trier, Germany) was instrumental in developing much of this housing, and 155 Prairie may have been one of his projects. I first heard of the Netstraeter connection from Rick Alvarez, one of the rental tenants at the time I bought the property in 1982 (for $86,000), and this was later confirmed with seeming certainty by Mrs. Agnes Fiedler, the previous owner. Born in 1843, Father Netstraeter founded St. Joseph’s parish, and was pastor of the church between 1872 and 1923. He died in 1924. In addition to his pastoral role, he also served as a trustee of the Village Board from 1882 to 1887. (For her letter, go here.)

Originally, we believe, the second floor of this house was the living area while the ground floor was a sort of tack room or above-ground basement. (There is no below-ground space.) But by 1982 both the first and second floors were in use as living units. In 1985, as I was planning improvements to the property, I asked Mrs. Fiedler what she knew of its history. In her reply she endorsed the Netstraeter story and said that she and her husband, Judge George Fiedler, had remodeled the building “some (20?) years ago,” enlarging the present living rooms by combining two smaller rooms on each level and installing updated gas heating systems. Previously, she believed, heating was by oil stoves. They also changed the layout of the front porch and stairs. The Fiedlers were Winnetka residents who held the Wilmette building as a rental property. I kept it as a rental property for a couple of years before Allen and I decided to make it our home. To do that, we needed to make some changes.

Among its drawbacks, the house had no internal connection between its levels. Exposed stairways, front and rear, were the only access to the second floor and the attic. And having had absentee owners for so long, the building was by no means in attractive repair. I went before the Zoning Board of Appeals in April of 1985 with a plan to correct some of the obvious deficiencies, and I argued that as a live-in owner I would be able to provide attentive ongoing maintenance, thereby improving the housing stock of the village. By a one-vote margin (as I recall) I was granted a variance to build a two-story addition at the rear which would add one room to each level, enclose the exposed rear stairs and attic access, and provide for a below-stairs laundry area. Evanston architect Kent Marthaler designed and supervised the addition.

The subsequent 30 years in which Allen and I have occupied the property have seen a gradual succession of improvements as funds permitted. The decaying front stairs were demolished and rebuilt. A dilapidated and doorless garage was replaced. Heavy wooden storm sash that had to be put up and taken down seasonally were replaced by aluminum triple-tracks, most of which have since given way to double-glazed replacement windows. Kitchens and baths have been updated. New oak flooring now covers the old painted pine planks. Furnaces have been replaced and central A/C added to the second floor. A screened porch overlooking the back garden was added within a few years of the 1985 addition. Landscape improvements have included a complete reconfiguration of the lawn areas, with new turf, groundcover, trees, shrubs, perennials, and walks. Had we not made this house our home and our project for the last three decades, it would almost certainly have been demolished years ago and replaced with something much less interesting (in our opinion) and likely out of character with the neighborhood.

We extend grateful thanks to the Wilmette Historical Society and its board member Joe Hinkel for unearthing many of the historical details cited here. One of the factors complicating Joe’s job was that successive directories used varying street names to situate the same property across the years. What is now Prairie Ave. was at one time known as Gross Point Ave. south of Wilmette Ave., but was called Kline north of Wilmette Ave. Then for a time it was Kline both above and below Wilmette Ave. Finally it became Prairie. (Sorry, Mr. Kline. Whoever you were, your commemoration was short-lived.)

We are pleased that we could breathe new life into one of Wilmette’s “Century Homes” and that its historic origins have been authenticated by the Historical Society (pictures just below).

George Paterson, Sept. 1, 2015


 

Pictures
Above and below, left 1985; right, above and below: 2015

   
1985: External stairs to 2nd floor and attic; looking back to garage and parking lot. Right: 2015.
Over the years there have been other improvements such as hardwood floors and replacement windows, so it's no longer what it was in the 1880's, but its outside appearance
is still virtually unchanged, except for the addition at the rear.
 
Prior to addition; Wayne Andre's gray house, 1985. Right: 1987-88, with the deck (prior to porch);
 
the porch (added 1991), 2015.
 
The garage, 1985; and 2015

Mrs. Fiedler's letter follows. "I'm glad you like the building well enough to live there
yourself," she writes, "and now to add to it!" She knew something was up!

July 2015