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Embracing the past in Libertyville

A Great Rooms historic renovation project in Libertyville is recognized in the Daily Herald. Written by Mick Zawislak.

During moves from North Carolina to Gurnee to Georgia, the Swearingin family lived in new or nearly new homes. But when a job transfer last year led the southern natives back to Lake County, the growing family decided to look for something else. After a long search, a vintage Victorian-style home on Brainerd Avenue just west of downtown Libertyville caught their attention.

“This is a first,” Erin Swearingin said. “We’re very excited about what it’s going to be.”

The renovation of Wes and Erin Swearingin’s home is consistent with a village plan to encourage historic preservation.

“People in Libertyville care a lot about their neighborhoods,” said Mike Kollman, who heads a committee developing a historic preservation ordinance to be considered by the village board. “That’s a message we got loud and clear in doing our research.”

It was the muted but tangible character of the home that attracted the Swearingins. Converted in the 1920s from a single-family home to a duplex, the original grandeur at 533 Brainerd Ave. had dissipated. An enclosed front porch obscured the open, grand entry feature common among home of the period. Exterior trim details were hidden when the original cedar siding was covered, and the interior had been carved up. But enough hints of the comfortable turn-of-the-century lifestyle remained, and it was the knowledge of what the home, again could look like that intrigued them.

“I’ve always loved historic homes,” Erin Swearingin said. “It was a huge part of it.”

The coach house in the back, once used for horses and hay then converted in the 1945 to living quarters, sealed the deal as a spot for guests.

And so, last August, the Swearingins joined a shortlist of owners of the home built by John Seely Gridley, whose grandparents were among the earliest settlers in Vernon Township.

What they didn’t know was that six months later, the family, who welcomed a newborn daughter during the Blizzard of 2011, would still be living in the 700-square foot coach house as renovations at the main house continued.

“We knew the house needed some work,” Erin Swearingin said. “We didn’t expect to strip it down to the studs and start over.”

All the mechanical systems have been replaced and modern materials, such as spray foam insulation and long-lasting cement fiber siding, are being used in the project. However, the family has committed to sticking as much as possible to the original detail and design. The enclosed front porch was removed and rebuilt as an open version with a gable covering the stairs, true to the design of the period. A widow’s walk railing will be reinstalled atop the turret.

Inside, an original newel post for a stairway that had been walled off was discovered in the attic and will be refinished and reinstalled. The stair treads will be revived and original narrow oak floors on the main floor will be refinished.

“Those are inch and a quarter wide boards — you don’t see that anymore,” explained Craig Wolski, owner of general contractor Great Rooms Designers & Builders.

A lumber delivery date of Aug. 20, 1904, written on one of the original framing members of a wall upstairs, has provided the best clue to what had been a hazy detail of the home’s origins.

“They wrote what the load is, what the material is and when it’s to be delivered. That pretty much tips off when this house was built,” Wolski said.

Erin Swearingin said the mansard roof and round turret indicate the home had different architectural influences.

“This was built at the end of the Victorian era when they were starting to mix up styles,” she said during a recent walk-through with visitors. “This is all hearsay, but supposedly this house was one of the first in town to have electricity.”

Gridley had been the postmaster in Prairie View before moving to Libertyville, where he bought property and established a subdivision on Brainerd. His occupation was listed as “bank cashier” in the 1910 federal census. Ten years later, a live-in servant is listed as a resident.

“Back in the day, this was more than a nice house,” Wolski said. “They had money, whoever was living here.”

Restoration appears to be on the rise in Libertyville. Wolski said he built one new home and worked on 25 rehab projects last year. “I think what we’re seeing now is more people wanting to fix up what they have,” he said.

Village figures bear that out. In 2005, 32 homes were torn down and replaced with new versions. The number steadily dropped to seven in 2009 and none last year.

“It’s simply following the market. Even five years ago, builders were willing to pay more for a house to tear it down knowing they would make their money back,” said John Spoden, the village’s director of community development.

“Builders are way too quick these days to want to tear a house down,” Wolski said. “You can’t replace character.”

To restore character or breathe renewed life into your home, contact us to find out how we can make it happen.

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Victorian Home Libertyville
Vintage photo of the original configuration of the Libertyville Victorian-style home.

Victorian Home Renovation

Victorian-style home in Libertyville just prior to renovation.

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