Winnetka’s famed 110-year-old ‘solid rock house’ is most recent historic home to stare down a wrecking ball
Built in 1911, 82 Essex Road was designed by famed international architect Walter Burley Griffin, who studied under Frank Lloyd Wright
A property that officials are saying could be the most architecturally significant house in the village of Winnetka is the latest local home facing demolition.
Winnetka’s Landmark Preservation Commission considered a permit to demolish 82 Essex Road — a home designed by noted architect Walter Burley Griffin and widely recognized as the “solid rock house” — during its regular meeting Monday, March 1.
Commissioners unanimously voted for a Historical Architectural Impact Study to be conducted before the home can be demolished, meaning they believe the “property is of sufficient historic or architectural merit.”
Research from the Winnetka Historical Society also shows that the home has both architectural and historical significance, per village documents.
The home is located on the west Side of Essex Road between Winnetka Avenue and Warwick Road, nearby the border of Kenilworth.
According to information from the historical society, the home was built in 1911 and designed by Walter Burley Griffin, a renowned architect specializing in Prairie School-style architecture.
Griffin’s profile grew early in his career because of his work at Frank Lloyd Wright’s historic Oak Park studio, according to records included in the historic society’s research.
Griffin — a native of Maywood, Illinois, and graduate of Oak Park and River Forest High School — is also well-known internationally as designer of the capital city of Australia, Canberra.
In addition to his global prominence, Griffin designed several historic buildings in Winnetka and throughout the United States. One of his most notable local works is a Winnetka home located at 42 Abbotsford Road that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, according to the historical society.
Eighty-two Essex Road is built in near entirety out of reinforced concrete, according to village documents, thus earning its moniker: the solid rock house.
Commissioners said at the March 1 meeting that the Essex Road home is one of only two Griffin-designed properties in Winnetka, following the recent demolition of a third.
The home also maintains historical value because of its previous owners, several of whom were high-profile Winnetka residents, according to the historical society.
Previous owners include: Grover M. Hermann, the founder of the American-Marietta Company; Jens and Amy Wood Nyholm, the former head of Northwestern University’s library and the curator and manuscript librarian at the Newberry Library, respectively; and C. William Brubaker, a prominent architect known for designing the First National Bank of Chicago.
Commissioners were originally scheduled to review the demolition permit during their Feb. 1 meeting but acting chair Jack Coladarci suggested tabling the discussion because of the high level of public interest in the proposal.
The village received 20 written public comments prior to the March 1 meeting urging the preservation of the property. While a majority of the comments were locally submitted, several from Australia were also sent.
Winnetka resident Ben Rowland, the owner of the second Griffin-designed home on Abbotsford, expressed strong opposition in his written comment.
“I’m writing to strongly oppose this (demolition),” he said. “No one should purchase such a historic home if they have no intention of living in it and renovating it (if not restoring it). The character of our neighborhood depends on maintaining such unique and extraordinary examples of architecture. Winnetka has already lost other Griffin homes. This must not be another.”
Scott Sanders, the president of BrightLeaf construction who spoke as a representative of the applicant, said the property’s owners had “general awareness” of the home’s historic value before purchasing it.
Commissioners asked Sanders if the property owner — which village records list as Kevin Desai — looked at other homes that did not hold such historic value. Sanders said they did, but added that the options were limited.
“Winnetka is extremely desirable for new families to move into,” Sanders said. “The couple currently does not live in the Village of Winnetka right now, and the real estate market, with only 4,500 homes in your village, is pretty tight. So I’m sure that they were looking elsewhere and this was the best property that they had at the best value that they could find.”
After commissioners asked if the owners would be willing to sell the home to an ownership group interested in preservation, Sanders said they are “definitely open” to an offer but that he doesn’t believe one will be made given the purchase price of more than $700,000 and the home’s current condition.
“I wouldn’t want to pin my hopes on that happening,” he said, “but if some angel came in and said they’ll pay them X dollars, they will absolutely consider it.”
Because the home is made of concrete, Sanders added, changing its floor plan is nearly impossible and the basement is uninhabitable.
Commissioners will next review the permit after the Historical Architectural Impact Study is complete. They will at that point then have the option to issue a delay period to further provide an opportunity to save the home.
The applicant’s case to demolish the Essex Road home comes as village officials are reviewing measures to strengthen the preservation of historic homes in Winnetka amid what they are describing as a “teardown problem.”
The measures, as previously reported by The Record, would extend the current 60-day demolition waiting period to up to 270 days, if approved. They would also include potential incentives for property owners to preserve homes.
Earlier this year, the property owners of a historic Winnetka home on Ardsley Road withdrew their demolition permit amid public scrutiny.
The Record is a nonprofit, nonpartisan community newsroom that relies on reader support to fuel its independent local journalism.
Subscribe to The Record to fund responsible news coverage for your community.
Already a subscriber? You can make a tax-deductible donation at any time.
Martin Carlino is a co-founder and the senior editor who assigns and edits The Record stories, while also bylining articles every week. Martin is an experienced and award-winning education reporter who was the editor of The Northbrook Tower.