'Gingerbread house' is heritage to savor

A historic home is subject of concerted effort to add a new chapter to its compelling story

Series: Fifth Street Fairytale | Story 1

Having breathed new life into an historic R. Harold Zook-designed home several years earlier, Hinsdale's Mimi Collins was well-versed on the celebrated local architect.

But Zook's 1920s-built cottage-like dwelling at 4 E. Fifth St. was not on her project wish list when it hit the market last year. After all, Collins had just gone to market with the 7,000-square-foot-plus Roaring Twenties château on Park Avenue that she'd spent two years rehabbing.

"I had no intention of buying this house," Collins remarked.

The daughter of a high school friend had always been captivated by the house, so Collins urged her to act fast, knowing interest in the property would be strong. The timing wasn't right, however.

Or was it?

"I go, 'I have to buy it, because this has to go to the right person,' " Collins said.

And just like that another spared-from-the-wrecking-ball undertaking was born. The footprint is smaller than that previous Zook at 46 S. County Line Road but has a similar vibe.

"It's very different but I love Zook. It's so cozy and charming. I fell in love with it," Collins said.

The woman who sold it to her also had fallen in love with it long before. Dorothy Ernest was born and raised in Hinsdale, graduating from Hinsdale Township High School in 1959. She delighted in the Sunday drives her family would regularly take around the village to admire the various residential styles on display.

"I always called this 'the gingerbread house,' " Ernest said of the Tudor Revival specimen.

In 1981 when Ernest and her then-husband moved back to Chicago for his academic career, she reached out to a real estate agent in her hometown. Nothing met her curb-appeal standards. Finally Ernest asked her agent where she lived. In a pinch-me twist of fate, she answered 4 E. Fifth.

"I said, 'I want to buy your house,' " Ernest recounted. "She said, 'It's not for sale.' "

Intent on the acquisition, Ernest applied her powers of persuasion to make her dream come true. Later she discovered her old curtains in the house, picked up by her predecessor at a yard sale, another detail of destiny.

"It's a small town," Collins remarked.

Preserving Hinsdale's inventory of homes dating back a century or more has been a collective dream after scores were lost to redevelopment over the last few decades. Village pro-preservation measures are aiding that cause, extending incentives to people like Collins to help restore these one-of-a-kind treasures.

The home revels in its old-world trappings with an ivy-draped exterior, oriel window with quatrefoil panels and inviting front entry set off by an arched, rusticated stone surround. Inside a small foyer opens into a handsome living room with wooden beams and a large stone fireplace evoking an English countryside refuge.

"I love that fireplace. I love sitting in here with the fire going," Ernest said.

Historical records suggest the home was built as a spec home during the post-World War I housing boom, although evidence conflicts as to whether it materialized in 1922 or 1928. First owner Frank Danielson was a civil engineer and one-time village staffer who is credited with establishing Hinsdale's pioneering municipal ice plant in the days before home freezers. He and his wife, Dorothy, coincidentally, had two children and employed two live-in servants.

A quaint library sits off the living room. The adjacent dining room features original corner built-ins and leaded windows. A door leads to an enclosed porch overlooking a small backyard. Ernest had her architect father replace its unsightly corrugated roof with a tempered glass one.

"It is a wonderful space. It's my favorite room," she said of the sun-lit haven.

The cozy kitchen retains its original wooden counter tops and cupboards and is decorated with Ernest's own paintings. The still-functional pull-down window screens were a modern amenity at the time, and Ernest revealed a well-disguised laundry chute blending into the cabinetry.

"He used every little inch," Ernest said of Zook's approach.

Four bedrooms occupy the second floor, with a bonus space above the garage. Some rooms are in a state of transition as Ernest prepares to move to a nearby retirement home.

"I want to know what you're going to sell because I want to buy a bunch of stuff," Collins told Ernest.

Collins said her vision is updating, not upheaval.

"I'm going to keep everything pretty much the same, change some bathrooms and a different layout in the kitchen," she said. "The beams and the wood all stays. I'll just kind of give it a little refresh."

Ernest will be keeping close tabs on Collins' work, as will this series, chronicling the thought and work that goes into to such an endeavor. Ernest is heartened that she won't be the last to experience this special home.

"I can't wait to see what you do with it," Ernest exclaimed to Collins. "I feel very lucky to have lived in this beautiful house. It loves you back."

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean