Old benefits bring new residents, homes to Irving Park

By all accounts, Jack and Liz Wilson seemed to be overpaying for their house in Old Irving Park when they bought it in the early ’80s. No one disputed that the 1890s Queen Anne was a beautiful home; the gingerbread detail, stained glass, original woodwork and especially, the pristine cupola, made the house a showstopper, causing more than a few gapers’ blocks on North Keeler. But the Wilsons, who fell in love with the house and waited to buy until it came onto the market, were paying nearly double the average single-family house price in the neighborhood.

Having a picnicToday, that initial outlay of $110,000 for the 3,000-square-foot five-bedroom Victorian mansion doesn’t seem so foolish. The Wilsons, who are retiring to Arizona, recently listed the home for sale with an asking price of nearly $700,000. Granted that price increase comes after many years, an investment of several hundred thousand dollars and three major rehabs in which everything from mechanical systems to fine details were lovingly restored.

But the thorough rehab and general inflation aren’t enough to explain the kind of price tag normally associated with neighborhoods like Lincoln Park and Lakeview way up on the Northwest Side bungalow belt.

The explanation begins in 1868 when four New Yorkers purchased a 160-acre farm that covered the area now between Montrose, Irving, Pulaski and Kostner, and an additional 80-acre tract to the south. The men decided to subdivide the land and create a suburban settlement at the location, which at that time was seven miles from the Chicago city limits. The developers agreed to build a train station if the Chicago & North Western Railroad would stop there.

With ample land, convenient transportation and a booming metropolis nearby, the upscale suburb of Irving Park was born. The town was originally to have been called “Irvington” after author Washington Irving, but when the developers discovered another town of the same name, they altered it.

“It was originally advertised as an exclusive suburb; it was not part of the city at that time,” says Bill Tyre, resident historian with the Irving Park Historical Society. “It was intended for upper or upper middle class residents. The developers sold the land but didn’t necessarily build the houses. There were a couple of architects who lived there who built a lot of them.”

The handiwork of those architects can still be seen on many blocks in Old Irving Park, the most historic section of the neighborhood, bounded roughly by Addison, Milwaukee, Montrose and Pulaski (the larger neighborhood boundaries stretch east as far as the Chicago River). In a 1986 survey, Tyre recorded about 600 buildings in Old Irving Park that predated 1894. The largest concentration of historic homes, he says, is on Keeler and Tripp avenues, where many of the houses date back to the 1870s and 1880s.

Dancers at the Abbey PubA quick drive down these historic streets and it’s easy to see what attracted the Wilsons to Old Irving Park. Magnificent Queen Anne, Italianate and Prairie style homes grace the wide, quiet roads. The yards are large and lush and despite the fact that Irving Park is now well within the city limits, it still has a suburban feel.

But in the early ’80s, many of the historic homes had fallen into disrepair. The flight to newer, more distant suburbs had hurt the neighborhood as families with school aged children departed.

The Wilsons can take some credit for a neighborhood renaissance that started during the 1980s, a hundred years after Irving Park’s first heyday. Jack Wilson founded the Old Irving Park Association after he moved in, a civic and historical group. He saw the unrealized potential of a neighborhood with excellent transportation, large yards and affordable Victorian homes crying out to be restored. One of the group’s main thrusts was highlighting Irving Park’s magnificent houses and encouraging their restoration.

Wilson organized the first annual Irving Park Housewalk (the next one will be on Sept. 18), and 1,200 people arrived to tour some of the most beautiful and at that time, unknown historic homes on the Northwest Side. House buffs who weren’t even sure where Irving Park was were astounded at the concentration of Victorian mansions. The neighborhood received more exposure and as prices climbed along the lakefront, professionals began buying and renovating houses in Irving Park during the ’80s.

Alongside the stylish Victorians stand plain American four-squares and the occasional vintage apartment building. The diverse housing stock helped create a diverse mix of people in the neighborhood, doctors and lawyers as well as city workers and blue collar families, but that mix is becoming harder to maintain as prices continue to rise.

“The average home price was about $65,000 when we moved in,” says Liz Wilson, a real estate agent. “Now it’s probably about $300,000 more than that. Run-of-the-mill houses on the smaller side with no Victorian detailing are listing at $285,000. People take them and completely redo them. People are spending a lot of money here.”

Homes are less flashy but just as impressive as Old Irving’s Victorians in the Villa, an Irving Park enclave bounded by Avondale, Pulaski and Addison. This national historic district has large homes, lush greenery and flowered parkways. The jumbo bungalows, of the both the Chicago and California styles, predominate, and buyers seldom move out of the Villa once they’ve moved in.

Schurz High SchoolAs with the neighborhood’s residential component, the commercial life of Old Irving has been rejuvenated. The well known Six Corners shopping area at Irving and Milwaukee had fallen on hard times, a victim of newer malls and a lack of parking. The commercial strip still suffers from vacancies, but the recent opening of The Marketplace at Six Corners, just east of the large Sears on Irving, brought much needed retail, including a large Jewel-Osco, a Blockbuster Video and a Marshalls, to the neighborhood. The new retail has the advantage of parking over the older Six Corners shops, but it is hoped that a tax increment financing district and redevelopment plan will boost the older commercial space.

Other benefits to Irving Park include convenient Metra and CTA elevated train stops and easy access to the Kennedy Expressway, which cuts diagonally through the neighborhood. Residents say they can be downtown or at O’Hare Airport in a matter of minutes, and the streets are relatively safe. But despite a new high end for housing that has passed the half a million dollar mark, the biggest advantage to Irving Park continues to be pricing. The Wilsons’ house may seem expensive, but move it to Lincoln Park and the price might double. Property to the east remains more expensive and buyers continue to move to Irving Park for a discount.

That was what drew builder Paul Bertsche there when he decided to build the Terraces of Old Irving, a large townhouse development that represented the first significant new construction Irving Park had seen in decades.

“When we started the Terraces there hadn’t been any substantial construction in over 40 years in Irving Park,” says Bertsche, of C.A. Development. “Like many families in Chicago, we had two kids and were thinking about having more. We were living in Lakeview and didn’t have enough space or a yard. We didn’t want to move to the suburbs and spend an hour commuting every day.”

Bertsche’s solution was to assemble the land for the Terraces of Old Irving. What gave him the confidence to undertake a major development in a neighborhood with no track record for new construction?

“You drive through the neighborhood and see the way people maintain and have pride in their houses,” Bertsche says. “It’s highly owner-occupied, and I always try to be within five minutes of an expressway, which really facilitates travelling downtown and to the airport. We said to ourselves, `We’d live here,’ and now we do.”

A family in family-oriented Irving ParkBertsche who moved into one of his own Terraces, is now in the midst of a second Irving Park development, Old Irving Pointe, 3940 N. Milwaukee. The project includes a first phase of 13 single-family homes and six masonry townhomes and may include up to 60 units if C.A. can fulfill its plans for the rest of the block.

Townhouses at Old Irving Pointe are priced from $259,990, and single-family houses range from the $280s to the $320s. Single-family houses have three or four bedrooms, 2.5 baths, private yards, fireplaces, master suites, two-car detached garages and anywhere from about 2,300 to 3,200 square feet of space. The townhouses have three bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms, master suites, two-car attached garages and private yards.

The same advantages that created the suburb of Irving Park more than a century ago are now keeping families in the city, according to Bertsche.

“You can get better value here still,” says Bertsche, whose project is more than 60 percent sold. “Lakeview is like Lincoln Park, you can’t get a single-family home for under $400,000 or $500,000. We have big houses on oversized lots, and a park area, in the $200s and $300s.”

Down the street from Bertsche’s development, builder Richard Lettvin is preparing for first occupancy in October in Old Irving Village, a new 40-unit townhouse project that was 40 percent sold at press time.

Around 60 percent of buyers at Old Irving Village are from Lakeview and Lincoln Park, according to Lettvin, who also cites lower pricing as the main draw. Units at Old Irving Village are priced from the $240s to the $320s for townhouses with two to four bedrooms, 2.5 to three baths and one-or two-car garages. Square footage in the houses ranges from around 1,800 square feet to more than 2,800.

Lettvin prefers the label “attached single-family” to “townhouse” to describe his product, designed by Basil Associates, because the building facades are stepped back at regular intervals to give the appearance of single-family dwellings. Other features, such as the two-car garages and rear and side yards also add to the feeling of a single-family, the dominant housing type in the neighborhood.

The Six Corners shopping areaAnother interesting element of the project is the separation of living areas by half flights of stairs, which means that even though the homes are more or less two stories, the living space is divided into five levels.

“You get more volume this way and you avoid these four story townhouses that you see so much of,” Lettvin says. “I wanted you to be able to enter at grade so you didn’t have a lot of steps going up on the outside.”

Lakefront buyers aren’t the only ones moving into Old Irving Village, Lettvin says. The project, which is about 25 percent sold, also is drawing about a quarter of its buyers from the Northwest Side.

Just south of Old Irving’s borders, Dubin Residential Communities is building the 3500 Club, at 3500 W. Belmont, in Avondale. The brick homes are priced in the low $200s and include two bedrooms, two baths, balconies or decks and two-car attached garages.

While Irving Park’s newest homes might not be as grand as the graceful Victorians built by its first residents, the new housing is creating a second boom 100 years later. What remains the same are the factors that brought the first residents to Irving Park and are drawing a new generation of families back to the neighborhood: solid transportation, new housing and a quiet suburban atmosphere.

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