If the modern real estate mantra is “location, location, location,” McHenry County’s historic homes add a few more Desirable Traits: Charming. Unique. Comfortable. characteristic.
Throughout McHenry County, painted lady Victorians, cozy bungalows and classic all-American four squares, some complete with a spacious welcoming front porch, remind us of the way life used to be — even if we’re too young to remember it.
Step inside, as three residents share what they love about their historic homes.
1882 Steamboat Gothic
Blake Mueller didn’t expect to become a homeowner a few days before Christmas in 1976, but the young man’s purchase of a ramshackle Woodstock house launched a passion that has lasted for more than three decades.
“I have such a love for this house and all the background of it,” Mueller says.
The house was a weathered duplex with an overgrown yard, yet Mueller saw its potential.
“I doubted I could afford it, but the owners encouraged me to make an offer,” he says. “I did, they snapped it up and I had myself a house.”
Once the home of a Woodstock grocer, Barton Austin, his wife and seven children, the two-story home is wrapped by a covered, gallery-style porch and resembles the ornate passenger boats that once cruised the Mississippi, thus the style called Steamboat Gothic.
Four of the Austin daughters became schoolteachers in Woodstock, and son Barton Austin Jr. studied landscape architecture at the University of Illinois. He joined a prominent St. Louis firm and did design work for the Chicago Park District, properties on the North Shore and his family’s home in Woodstock. Austin Jr.’s gardens survived years of neglect.
“The first spring, I was amazed by the number of perennials coming up,” Mueller says. “The yard was just full of flowers.”
In the years since, Mueller and his wife, Candy, have restored and expanded the gardens, keeping much of Austin Jr.’s original plans intact. They have done extensive work to the interior as well, restoring the wood floors and gingerbread trim and expanding the house to the rear.
They also have transformed the rear coach house into an art studio.
“I love the woodwork and gorgeous great big windows that let in a lot of light,” Candy Mueller says. “The house has good bones.”
“We’ve nibbled away at [the restoration] little by little,” Blake Mueller says. “I’ll think we’re at the end, but then Candy always comes up with a new idea.”
1928 Sears “Honor-Bilt” Home
Crystal Lake was still a summer resort community and the neighborhood west of Crystal Lake Central High School was a large open field when railroad conductor Frank Heath and his wife, Frances, who cleaned Pullman railcars, purchased a $1,910 house from the Sears catalog.
For the next three years, the Heaths, along with their teenage son, King, and young daughter, Dawn, lived in the garage while they assembled the house, fitting together numbered pieces according to detailed blueprints that came with it.
“They had it delivered in two railcars pulled down Dole Avenue,” says Karen Stefanik, who, along with her husband, Joe, purchased the house in 1988. “I think it’s amazing that it came with everything you needed to build it, including a pedestal sink, which we still have.”
Kit homes were common in the early 20th century, especially in communities built near a rail line like Crystal Lake.
The Stefaniks were in the market for a ranch house, but came to see the home at the suggestion of their real estate agent.
“We both fell in love with it, and we knew this was our house,” Stefanik says.
Though someone mentioned its history, the “Sears home” distinction meant nothing to the couple until Stefanik read an article about mail order homes and checked out a library book, which contained an old catalog illustration of her model, the Willard.
“Right away, I started going around and found approximately 20 [Sears homes] right in this neighborhood,” she says.
The cozy, two-story Willard has a distinctive steep gable above the front door. Each holiday, the Stefaniks light the slope in green, creating a Christmas tree effect.
Over the years, the couple has remodeled and repaired, but the Stefaniks have kept many of the house’s original details. Their latest project is updating the kitchen, but it’s following the original floor plan and includes the original kitchen cabinets.
“This house is solid, and it’s incredibly well built,” Stefanik says.
1856 Federal Style
Tom L. Conley can trace his family history back to the earliest days of Huntley.
He has a connection to his community’s namesake, Thomas Stillwell Huntley, as well.
Since 1986, Conley has owned the home that Huntley, a local businessman, built at the corner of Woodstock and Third streets.
Conley, a retired airline pilot, and his wife, Barbara, have been restoring the 17-room home ever since.
“I’ll be working on it [until] the day of my funeral,” Conley jokes.
The house originally was a compact two-story with twin porches and a grand, curved staircase.
But after Huntley’s death in 1894, his brother-in-law Abram Brinkerhoff began an extensive renovation, possibly to repair termite damage. Brinkerhoff removed the original clapboard siding, shutters and trim and covered the exterior with stucco, a popular turn-of-the-century look that also was termite proof.
He doubled the size of the house, adding a foyer, dining room and large kitchen as well as additional rooms upstairs. Colorful Art Nouveau stained glass windows were installed throughout the first floor.
However, when Conley purchased the home, it was in a state of neglect. For several years, he lived in a small back bedroom and repaired damaged rooms. After he and Barbara wed, they took on the project together, including a major push to complete exterior renovations and much of the first floor interior prior to Huntley’s 2001 Sesquicentennial house walk.
“It used to take us about six months to do one room, but in about two years, we did seven or eight rooms, plus the outside,” Barbara says.
They found many light and wall fixtures in the house’s basement, and Tom Conley’s job as a pilot made it easy to search for more. Even after his seniority put him in line for international routes, he kept flying small domestic trips in order to scour antique malls. Barbara often would drive out to meet him and bring their newest treasure home.
Conley’s favorite rooms are the living room and library, which may have been Huntley’s office, while Barbara loves the small sunroom.
“In the early 1900s, it was considered healthful to step out and breathe fresh air, and here you could do that without leaving the house,” she says. “It’s a very nice addition.”