Saturday, December 13, 2014

Going Home - 29 Dover Street - La Grange,Illinois -Part 1

On the occasion of my 60th Reunion from LTHS I paid an unannounced visit to our old family home at 29 Dover in La Grange. I was graciously give a full tour of the house by its current owners, and Stacy and Doug McClure. Although there were some changes on the inside, the outside of the house appeared largely unchanged. The house was built by Hinsdale architect R. Harold Zook (1889-1949) for the Bancroft family in about 1928. Zook was noted for  "Cotswold style cottages". Cotswold is an area in south central England just south of Stratford on Avon and Bath and was known for its Jurassic limestone built villages and stately homes and gardens. Zook designed homes included Tudor architectural details with timber framing, exposed beams, and intricate stonework. The classic "Zook Roof" utilized undulating wood shingles which gave the appearance of a thatched roof. Ornamental ironwork on some houses had a spiderweb pattern. Although most of Zook's houses were built in Hinsdale several were built in La Grange including one up the street on North Dover. To my knowledge our home always had wood shingles but without the undulations seen on the roof of the Zook house up the street. Much to our dismay our parents replaced the wood shingle roof with standard shingles in the 1970's after we had all flown the coop. Also our home did not have a spiderweb pattern.
My parents (Arch and Gladys Sessions) married in 1928 at the First Congregatinal Church in La Grange and lived for several years in Marietta Georgia. In 1930 they moved to La Grange when my dad got a job at the First National Bank of Chicago. They purchased our home from the Bancrofts who moved to the house next door to the North. We were always told that our Zook house was an "Irish Hut". At that time there were two small bedrooms. There was a knotty pine room off the central bedroom. The small bedroom on the north side was connected by stairway through its present closet to another small room above the kitchen just off the attic. Because they needed more room (my brother Bob was born that year) my parents commissioned Mr. Zook to design and build an addition. This included lengthening the entry hallway to the right and adding a bathroom and master bedroom over a two car garage. The completed home seemed large to us as we (three boys and a girl) were growing up. The most striking feature for me through the years is that the house seems so significantly smaller than I remember. 

The features of the house that still impress me through the years include the huge exposed beams in the living room, the limestone chimney and facade to the right of the entry, the sidewalls of the curved driveway which were always a challenge to young drivers; the"landing" which housed our clock with Westminster chimes; the secret hiding place where my mom put her silver when we went out of town for extended periods (just like the Southerners hid their silver from the Yankees in William Faulkner's 1943 short story,'My Grandmother Millard'; the massive front door with which I played the great game of trying to open it quietly when I came home late after a date so as not to awaken my mother (impossible), and out of which my dad would go out as  Air Raid Warden in his special hat and with his flashlight checking to make sure all lights were out in the neighborhood (incidentally I remember we had an air raid over La Grange during the war - it was held during the day and we all had to stay indoors between the cycles of warning sirens. After the clear signal we all went out to find the bombs which had been dropped from airplanes over the region. I found one in our front yard- it was made of 3" wide newspaper strips folded into the size of a 3x5 card and with an 8" streamer of red crepe paper. My 'bomb' has disappeared into the same nether world which holds my massive collection of 'trading cards' which have also vanished.); and on which the Red Contagion Signs were posted warning the neighbors that inside was someone with measles or mumps or chicken pox; the clothes chute to the basement; the dining room with its picture window and where one/fifth of the ceiling fell onto part of the dining room table one Sunday morning before church (there was a small but persistent leak in the roof valley above it); the screened in porch where I used to sleep on summer nights listening to the rain fall against the wooden blinds; the balcony off "the boys room" (our folks moved into the middle bed room as the three growing boys need for space increased); the pine room where I would lie after "bed time" as a young child and be able to hear my folks radio programs in the living room (interrupted occasionally and maddenly by the sound of the Burlington trains going by); lying in bed in the quiet of the night and hearing the comforting  sounds of the LTHS clock; the warmth from the radiators; the  small kitchen where my mom continually worked her magic; the opening in the wall behind the icebox where the iceman (complete with ice covered with sawdust, tongs, and leather shoulder pad) would place the blocks of ice into the box; the kitchen back door where Mr. Ward would bring my mom two tins filled with fresh cookies every two weeks; the back steps where we would eat potato chip sandwiches with ketchup; the  chute down which the coal was sent into the scary dark coal room from which my dad shoveled coal into the furnace for years; the main room in the basement where my folks would gather with friends and neighbors  to make chili sauce out of home grown tomatoes with a Foley food mill and where I learned how to play competitive ping pong, the side yard where my dad used to plant tulips, the back stoop where we used to save all metal cans for the war effort by removing both ends and stamping them flat; the back yard where one day my dad rung the head off a chicken (won at the American Legion Carnival) in preparation for removing the feathers in boiling water cooking it for dinner and eating it - I couldn't believe the chicken could run around so long without its head; the front parkway with its huge elm trees around which we used to play tackle football; the  garages in the back where we could climb the fence, get onto the Levering's (whose daughter, Dorothy, my age was in an iron lung because of the dread polio {a worse case than President Roosevelt} and ultimately fatal) garage extension and onto all three garage roofs including the death defying leap to the red roof on the right; the block itself which had been a park initially with its large stone fountain in the southwest corner of our neighbor Barney Grogan's (owner of the Floursheim shoe  store on La Grange Road where you could put your foot under his machine and see your toe bones move) yard before succumbing to housing pressure, with its sidewalk where we all learned to ride our bicycles weaving around businessmen walking home from the Stone Avenue Station after a day of work in the Loop.
I can see in this free association (you should understand that I just finished taking a course in "Humboldt's Gift" which helped Saul Bellow, a Chicago writer, win a Nobel Prize in Literature and this is my attempt to write like him) that we kids were raised in this extraordinary house to feel special through the love, energy, creativity, and enthusiasm of our parents and the enveloping connection of our family.

Interestingly I have few pictures of the house from the street. This one shows my VW Beatle which I picked up in Southampton, England after college and which after being driven around Europe for a summer was shipped from Antwerp across the Atlantic to Chicago via the St Laurence Seaway and the Great Lakes. I picked it up and drove it to St Louis for use during my med school years.
The photo was taken with my Minox B spy camera that I bought in Munich that summer. It was one of those treasures that I thought I needed to have to complete my life. My passion for the camera lasted for several months - a great lesson.


To the right of the door Mr. Zook designed a concrete crock which was large enough to hide a small child and always reminded me of the Arabian Nights. 


I loved the balcony with its cantileavered floor and pot of flowers. The driveway was made with a curve to save a mature birch tree
which lived for many years.


We had seasonal awnings on the balcony and the dining room window. This is mom and dad and Lee, Jan, and Gordon

celebrating a birthday - my folks loved celebrations.

Here is Jan with mom and dad in front of the fire. This was the social focal place in the winter. The Steuben vases on the bookcases were wedding presents to my parents. They are still in the family. The sign was one of Mr. Zook's ornamental metal works and Jan has put one like it above our current fireplace.


Here is my mom in the world's smallest kitchen. She cooked three meals a day for all six of us and a dog for many years. Nevr once do I remember hearing her complain about the kitchen. When I was growing up we had Sunday dinner at 1:00 and she rotated roasts between roast beef and leg of lamb and we ate sandwiches with leftovers for the next week for lunch. Curiously we were not allowed to attend the movies on Sunday. During the week we always ate dinner at 6:00 as a family. When we bought a dishwasher it was a great
help and time saver.


Christmas was magical and we always had tall trees that reached the ceiling. Trimming was a team event and we all had our favorite ornaments. We opened presents Christmas morning. One day we were opening gifts in front of the roaring fire and my job was to take wrappings and small boxes and put them into the fire. Much to my surprise one of the things I threw into the fire was my mom's new Belgian lace handkerchief, a gift from my brother. I learned that Belgian lace handkerchiefs flame up and disappear almost instantly.


Often at Christmas the folks had a party for friends, relatives and business associates. At one of these parties I was outside and someone came to the front door and through out a still burning cigarette onto the ground. I was about 5 years old and had seen other people (not my family) smoking and so I picked up the butt and did a full inhalation. I couldn't get any air in after that and I thought I was going to die. I can still remember thinking that that was not as much fun as it looked.
(To be continued)


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