The Coonley House in Riverside is among the most magnificent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs in Chicago. This week I had the great pleasure of roaming its main rooms and gardens with Dean and Ella Mae Eastman, the couple who renovated a major portion of the property and have put part of it up for sale.
Coonley House dates to 1907, when it was built on a ten-acre parcel along the Des Plaines River for Avery Coonley and his wife, Queen Ferry Coonley. Wright gave the Coonleys a residence that blended indoors and out and felt as much like a little village as a home, given the way the courtyards, buildings, and garden walls interconnected. In the 1950s, a developer planned to demolish the entire composition, but preservationists prevailed and the home was split into four residences: two in the main house, one in the former gardener’s cottage, and one in the stables.
In 2000, Dean Eastman, who had retired as head of Argonne National Laboratory and was teaching at the University of Chicago, became enthralled with the larger residence in the mansion, a space that included the main rooms and whose grounds included a former lily pond. At the time, the Eastmans lived in an apartment on Lake Shore Drive, but they decided to undertake a full-scale renovation of that portion of the main Coonley residence. According to the Cook County Recorder of Deeds, they paid $975,000 for that segment and then, says Dean Eastman, spent “much more than that” on a meticulous renovation.
Those efforts were sorely needed. Much of the home’s interior had been painted white, a 28-foot mural by George Mann Niedecken was gone, and the lily pond had been converted into a swimming pool. The geometric frieze of tile and concrete that wraps much of the exterior was in serious disrepair, and at least one major wall was caving in, held up only by its window sashes, Dean Eastman says. He was deeply involved with the renovation, even hunting down old black-and-white photos of the mural and doing complicated re-creations of its size, scale, and details using calculus. The original colors were found in a single remnant of the mural, ten inches wide. (It’s hard to do the home or its renovation justice with mere words; be sure to check out the video shot by our online producer, Ezekiel Binion.)
Five years ago, the Eastmans stepped in to help save another part of the estate. They bought the stable residence from Carolyn Howlett, who had helped save the Coonley property decades before. Howlett lived in the stables, but was unable to keep up her home there. The Eastmans let Howlett continue living there, but she died shortly after. The Eastmans then fully renovated the stables residence.
The Eastmans now plan to downsize and have listed their residence in the main house with Marcee Gavula of Baird & Warner with an asking price of $2.89 million. And where are the Eastmans moving? “We’re not going far,” says Ella Mae Eastman: she and her husband will make their new home in the renovated stables.