Two Frank Lloyd Wright Homes Have Divided a Neighborhood

A plan to convert the 1880s houses to a bed and breakfast may be dead because of community opposition in Kenwood.

Photo: Dennis Rodkin

The morning after community opposition shot down a plan to convert a pair of early Frank Lloyd Wright houses in Kenwood into a bed-and-breakfast inn, the seller of one of the homes said “that’s the death knell.”

Charlie Baum, whose parents bought the home at 4858 S. Kenwood in 1956, put it on the market in October 2012 hand-in-hand with the house next door at 4852. Here is the photo tour of the pair that I did at the time.

Although the two homes don’t resemble one another, they’re linked as early-1880s designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, and by the fact that their present owners have had them since the mid-1950s. Listing agent Louisa McPharlin’s parents bought 4852 in 1954. Both homes now need extensive repairs and updating, but retain all sorts of splendid Wright details, as you can see in the pictures.

Baum says that the homes attracted quite a few lookers but no offers until last summer, when Col. Jennifer Pritzker’s Tawani Enterprises put both homes under contract, with the announced plan of creating a bed-and-breakfast inn. Baum says he was “excited” at the prospect.

“She can give these two pieces of art what they need to survive,” he told me Tuesday. “We’ve been advertising that they each need a half million dollars in repairs, but [Tawani] was going to put $2.5 million into each house.” That’s on top of the contracted purchase price, which was not announced. The asking prices were $1.175 million (for 4852) And $1.15 million for 4858, down from an original ask of $1.48 million each.

Neighbors soon began to oppose the proposed switch to commercial use of the properties. The opposition was spearheaded, multiple sources have told me, by a prominent philanthropist, whom Baum describes as a longtime friend of his parents. I have been trying since last week to reach the person; a message on her phone number says it has been disconnected.

Tawani had offered to put a restrictive covenant on the homes’ deeds stipulating that if the bed-and-breakfast went out of business, the two houses would revert to private homeownership, and any subsequent attempt to create a bed-and-breakfast would have to go through an entirely new re-zoning process.

Monday night, 4th Ward alderman Will Burns convened a community meeting about the plan at St. Paul the Redeemer Church. Tawani representatives made a presentation about the plan. I wasn’t able to attend, but Prentice Butler, Burns’s director of policy and communications, told me that 50 to 75 people attended and “the vast majority were vehemently opposed to the project.” As a result, he said, “the Alderman heard the concerns of the community. At this time, the project is not going forward.”

This is the second loss this year for a Tawani plan to create a boutique inn. Earlier this year, Evanston voters rejected a proposal to sell a lakefront mansion to the firm. The enterprise has a bed-and-breakfast planned elsewhere in Evanston, and another in Rogers Park. Tawani recently prevailed in a tussle over the proposed demolition of a historical home in Rogers Park to build a parking garage.

Baum said that after the defeat, “we don’t know what we’re going to do. These houses have millions of dollars built into repairing them that is not the owner’s choice; it’s mandated because they’re landmarks. My mother is 86; she has no resources to do it, and neither do I.” He says he may take the home off the market now and do some upgrades that will make the house more sellable.

McPharlin is out of the country; I could not reach her to find out what her family will do about their 101-year-old mother’s house, next door.

Baum is not very optimistic about the future of the Wright design his parents bought more than 50 years ago: “In the condition it’s in,” he said, “nobody in their right mind would buy it for domestic use.”

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