Jul 28, 2014

Can Elmhurst’s Oldest Home Be Saved? Hill Cottage Lists for $750K

Elmhurst's oldest home boasts six bedrooms, 3.5 baths, seven fireplaces, an estate lot, and lots of potential for rehab and renovation.

Perhaps no other building symbolizes Elmhurst’s history more as a 19th century pioneer settlement than Hill Cottage.

In it’s noble 171-year history, Hill Cottage has served as a tavern, hotel and stage coach stop on the lonely prairie between Chicago and the Fox River Valley. The building was moved from its original location at Cottage Hill Avenue and St. Charles Road to 413 S. York St. when it became a private residence in the 1890s.

Built in 1843 by the brother-in-law of the city’s founder, an Ohio businessman named Gerry Bates, Hill Cottage is credited with giving Elmhurst its first sense of community. Currently listed for $750,000, unless a buyer comes along who can appreciate the home’s seven fireplaces and former third-floor servants’ quarters, Elmhurst is in danger of losing its stage coach stop.

“At this time, we must assume that the most realistic path is potential razing and what we can do to prevent it,” said Vincent Spaeth, a park board commissioner and former board member of the Elmhurst Historical Museum. “I believe it is important to save some of the key buildings and history in the community.”

Spaeth says that he has personally alerted Mayor Steve Morley, the city council and other officials about the need to save Hill Cottage, but claims he hasn’t received much interest from anyone at the city willing to preserve it.

“Elmhurst finds plenty of money for another $14 million parking deck, just after building another $7 million deck two blocks away,” Spaeth said. “Let’s spend a little here and save this historic gem.”

The city does have a process in place for applying for local landmark designation for structures of architectural significance, but it requires owner consent. While such designation affords an additional layer of protection that prevents historic structures from being demolished and replaced by McMansions, it also requires certain responsibilities from the current and subsequent owners.

Presently, no such application has been submitted for Hill Cottage, although it and 50 other undesignated structures certainly fit the city’s criteria for preservation.

“We’ve had other owners who’ve had their homes designated as Elmhurst landmarks,” said Brian Bergheger, director of the Elmhurst Historical Museum. “I think oftentimes homeowners aren’t familiar with designation in and of itself. Some owners honestly don’t believe their house is significant when it may be so to a community.”

Elmhurst’s historic preservation ordinance is modeled after the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, which impacts a building’s exterior as seen from the public way, including the front and two sides. 

Provided there are no major modifications to the infrastructure that would require a building permit, homeowners are free to redecorate and update the interior to their heart’s content. Homeowners can also expand structures from the back of the building.

“There are a lot of misconceptions and we try to work with homeowners to help through the process,” Bergheger said. “Some owners think they won’t be able to update the kitchen or bathrooms.”

Exterior repairs to the front and sides of the home would require a “simple review step,” by Elmhurst’s Historic Preservation Commission.

“An example that often comes up is a house that has been landmark designated and has a front porch in terrible need of repair,” Bergheger said. “The design of the porch would require the homeowner to have repairs done in the historic character of the building.”

Bergheger said the city is deeply invested in Elmhurst’s history, pointing to the 1892 Glos mansion, which houses the history museum, and the 1850 Churchill Schoolhouse.

““The best way to preserve these old single family homes to is apply for landmark designation,” he said. “There are a lot of wonderful single family homes out there that I would advocate as a priority.”

Amy Schiller, the realtor, said that Hill Cottage has a lot of expandability with plenty of space for adding new amenities like a media room or finished basement.

“There is certainly a group of people who love the charm and history of these older homes,” Schiller said. “It’s a unique piece of property on an estate lot that's hard to find these days. It needs to be updated but it has lots of potential.”

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