What’s for Sale in America’s First Planned Suburb?
A look at the market in Riverside, Illinois
Published Oct. 21, 2020, at 11:13 a.m.
Text by Whet Moser
Riverside, Illinois, is arguably the nation’s first planned suburb. And what a plan it was: in 1868, investors hired the greatest landscape architects of their era, Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, who were fresh off of designing New York’s Central Park. Their curving streets and large, green lots helped define what many of us think of when we imagine a suburb, and the area’s pedigree and well-off residents attracted architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan. (The Coonley House is probably its most famous piece of architecture, and the Coonley Schoolhouse, now a home, is another spectacular Wright design.)
But Riverside is more than just starchitect homes. You can buy in with a starter home your grandparents would approve of, or get weirder than Olmstead or Wright could have ever imagined in a house (literally) on the river.
Sure, you could wait for a Wright or Burnham house, but they don’t have boat garages right on the Des Plaines.
Situated on the waterway that gives Riverside its name is the Boat House, built in 1956 and still maintaining some of its MCM heritage on the outside. Inside, it’s been transformed to… vividly reflect the theme. The green- and blue-stained wood floor in the den may be too much look — to say nothing of the circular bar and 360-degree fireplace — but you can’t beat the views from the windows. In addition to its price, the size is also maximalist, with three beds and four baths at 4,654 square feet.
Just as big and considerably cheaper is an actual William LeBaron Jenney house: five beds, 3.2 baths, seven fireplaces, a four-car garage, and 4,518 square feet, for well under $1 million. On the first floor are details befitting its 1886 build date, including stained glass, a hardwood central staircase, breathtaking built-ins, and a well-lighted alcove with five bay windows. Time has been a little less kind to the upstairs, especially in the bedroom with a ‘70s pedestal bed covered in carpet. But you’ll want to spend all your waking hours in the alcove, anyway.
Just as much a period piece is this 1959 split-level bungalow. For just over a quarter million, you don’t get a ton of space: three beds, three baths, and 1,250 square feet, none of which appear to have been updated in decades. (Take the decor in all three bedroms: a pastel border and aqua green carpet in one, olive-green carpet and stucco-like wallpaper in the next, and pinstripe, satin-looking wallpaper in the third.) Just promise you’ll keep the kitchen mural.
Bigger and more upscale — four beds, three baths, 3,184 square feet — but no less busy is this 1955 ranchy bungalow. Beneath some of the more unfortunate choices, like the floral kitchen wallpaper and tropical tile backsplash, are classic MCM lines and materials, like the raised fireplace in the living room and the parquet floor. One of the best parts of the house is the “separate related living or zoned office space with separate entrances,” which has been much less messed with. Amond its amazing period details are a red leatherette door, even more parquet floor, and a mural of Michigan Avenue back when Prudential Plaza dominated it.
Finally, we have a very ‘70s custom build: four beds, three baths, and a big 3,712 square feet. It’s been fully renovated inside with lots (and lots and lots) of contemporary white and gray — probably for the best, though one can’t help but contemplate what swinging wonders it once contained.
The outside is all brown, beige, and odd angles, with a stairstep mansard roof that extends cantilevers down like landing gear on the front and back (where they frame the big wooden patio). It does fun stuff with that height inside, with a spiral staircase in the master bedroom leading to a loft, and a built-in bunk bed attached to an access ladder that leads to a third-floor playroom.