WICKER PARK— Work is underway to transform the Wicker Park mansion originally built for prominent clothier Paul Benson in 1894 from a multi-unit dwelling into a local couple’s single-family dream home.
“We want to thank all of our neighbors for being so patient and dealing with this [remodeling],” said the home’s co-owner Conor McCahill on a recent tour of the site.
McCahill and his fiancé bought the Wicker Park Historic District home at 2024 W. Pierce Ave. in fall of 2016 because they liked its architecture and proximity to the Damen Blue Line station just around the corner.
“It’s a breathtaking house and unique,” McCahill said. “On the walk through, we fell in love with the beauty of the house as well as its potential. The combination of the location and the architecture, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
The gut rehab started in the fall and if everything goes as planned, the couple, who currently live in a Wicker Park condo, will move into the home in February.
Sold for $1.4 million — significantly less than an initial asking price of $2.2 million — the home, which had been carved into four apartment units, presented structural challenges.
“The foundation was uneven. The entire home was suffering from a lack of attention. All of the work in the last 50 years was not permitted and up to code,” said McCahill, who’s documenting the progress on Instagram at @bluelinereno.
McCahill said the pipes bringing water to the third floor were run up through a dumbwaiter shaft, and the home’s electrical circuits were not dedicated to individual rooms. In one bathroom, there was a panel with eight circuits, so he’d have to walk in there to turn on lights for many other areas of the home.
The most dramatic change: crews working for project manager Jessie LaFree and architect Mike Shively with West Loop-based Mike Shively Architecture chopped off about 2,000 square feet of the 7,500 square-foot home by demolishing an old hay loft and an addition added in the 1920s that was not original to the home. Both of the demolitions were in the back of the house.
The former addition has been replaced with a glassy and airy all-seasons room. McCahill envisions filling the room with plants and, like the name implies, hanging out in it all year long.
A new 4-car garage will soon be built in the home’s backyard as well.
Saving A Piece Of History
An original oak stairway just off the entryway, large French doors, ceramic tiling in the foyer, fireplace mantels, pocket doors and door hinges have been preserved, along with various vintage artifacts and knicknacks.
“The stairway was one of the big things we fell in love with; it was important for us to keep it. It was in the best condition of anything in the house,” McCahill said.
Originally, there were seven pocket doors in the home. McCahill said when the home is completed, there will be a pocket door between the living room and the foyer, in the kitchen between the butler’s pantry and dining room and on the second floor between the master bedroom and the bathroom.
“We had to draw a line somewhere and can’t save everything. We wanted to save the floors so badly, but they were not in good condition,” McCahill said.
Plants in the yard and some small trees were saved.
“We loved nature so much, I saved as many plants as I could. We tried to save as many trees as we could, too. There are beautiful vines [on the front of the home] but the vines were digging into the stone so we had to remove them,” McCahill said.
And the purple window trim that often piqued the interest of passersby?
“I think the house will look just as good if not better [without it]. I was not a fan of the purple,” McCahill said.
Several of the home’s windows had been either covered by plywood or obscured by dark paint. Crews have brought those windows back.
“This gorgeous window over the staircase had been covered up for 50 years,” McCahill said, standing in front of it, the light pouring in.
Full Historic Renovation Too Much, Couple Says
Though the couple explored a complete historic interior renovation, they ultimately decided against it.
“We initially tried to go the route of fully restoring it and take advantage of historical tax credits,” McCahill said. “However, we found out it was a very subjective process on what is unique and historic — like a servant’s stairway — that has to stay. We’re trying to restore a house that can be lived in by a 21st Century family and the things they were requiring us to do didn’t make sense. The lifestyle someone had back then would not be how we are now. … It would be like living in a museum.”
It took a year from the time the home was purchased to when the renovations started, with four months of that time spent exploring what McCahill calls “the path of true historic restoration” with Highland Park-based Benjamin Historic Certifications.
“You have to go all in, you can’t keep 99 percent. There is no compromise. It was disappointing because you think that [the tax credit] exists to save our historical structures but in the end it was too expensive. We are so young, this is already a huge financial burden,” McCahill said.
Had they taken the route of a full historic preservation, it would have added $1 to $2 million to their budget, and fixing the original flooring would have been the priciest part.
“We really loved the floors but the years had taken a toll. To properly restore the floors and all the intricate woodwork, we’d have to find the right replacement wood, and some of it is warped,” McCahill said.
With the exception of new oak window trimmings to match the original facade, new third floor windows and a deep cleaning to remove grime from the original stone work, the exterior facade will remain as-is, in accordance with Landmark District rules.
Elsewhere in the city, Shively and his team remodeled a Wicker park three-flat, transforming an old attic into a livable space and removed a series of rooms in a Rogers Park condo to create a large open space with a continuous long view of the lakefront.
As of June, the renovations are on track to be completed by February. View many more photos from the rehab below, and stay tuned for photos from the completed dream home in February.