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The Joseph Butler House is Heading to Market in River Forest

The intricate Spanish Renaissance design harkens back to the original owner’s obsession with Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella.

The four-bedroom home, on Keystone Avenue, is one block from County Forest Preserve and a mile-and-a-half from downtown Oak Park.   Photo: Ian Spula

Price: $1,695,000

This Spanish Renaissance house in River Forest was designed by architects Frederick Meyer and Norman Cook in 1925 for Joseph Butler, the reigning Chicago Streets and Sanitation superintendent. Butler and his wife treated it as a summer home for the first 10 years before moving in year-round.

The house’s expansive front living area and a front stone balcony was either added upon the Butlers’ full time arrival in 1935 or in 1950, but it was at that time that the marble slab flooring went in downstairs. The Butlers lived here until the early 1950s, when health concerns sent them back to their former residence at The Drake. According to a newspaper obit from 1953, they died by heart attack within hours of one another.

The previous seller told today’s seller Donna Lambert and husband Matt that Butler believed he was a direct descendant of Christopher Columbus. The belief was strong: Every bit of stained glass framed in zinc and copper—and there’s a lot—pays homage to the explorer and Spain’s Queen Isabella. Of course the Santa Maria, Nina, and Pinta make appearances, but, muses Lambert, “the Pinta is relegated to the stairwell, probably because it sank.” Mosaic trim and reliefs, and valuable enamel plaques contribute mythical scenes to the house, if not the exact Columbus narrative. It’s no accident that the house is poised to hit the market for Columbus Day weekend.

The previous seller had everything painted white, and Lambert has worked to bring back a lot of color based on photographs of the original condition. Beams span the living room and family room ceilings and the front foyer is clad in an extinct black walnut with a carved plaster ceiling. Its main door is exquisitely detailed with circular cutouts filled with stained glass and copper casing.

Most of the finishes in the dining room and back family room are original with the exception of some of the large light fixtures. Lambert preferred lighting a little less severe than Spanish Colonial, but she stowed away the old fixtures so that they can be conveyed with the house to the new owner.

The biggest recent alterations are the conversion of a two-season room to additional family room space and a courtyard to a kitchen eat-in space in the kitchen. Terra cotta flooring was added to integrate the additions with the existing family room, and two mosaic reliefs from the exterior—a depiction of the Madonna and a couple of sparring gladiators—were relocated to the additions.

Three of the house’s bedrooms are upstairs and the star of the show is the master bathroom. Entirely encased in tile mosaic, it has a hanging crystal light that kind of looks like a steampunk hot air balloon. There are also mirrored ceilings and an original shower stall with 10 showerheads. The master suite boasts a corner balcony that takes in a long sweep of street with River Forest’s characteristic Prairie proportions: large lots, broad lawns, and huge trees.

The fourth bedroom is away in the coach house, set behind a formal yard with a fountain, pergola, and brick and stone paths. The coach is zoned as a separate residence, so could be put to work generating income. The sellers kept it as a detached office and occasional guest suite.

Price Points: The house’s ballpark square footage is between 3,200 and 3,500, not including the coach house or basement, which is unfinished. Appraised square footage, likely including the coach house, is more than 4,400 and the taxes on that are $27,579. The lot is 51 x 219 and feels even larger because of its compound-like privacy, high walls, and coach house blocking most views of the neighbors. After 20 years in River Forest, the sellers are moving back to Virginia where they met and where their kids were born.

Greer Haseman and Susan Maienza of Gagliardo Realty are representing the sale.

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