by Justine Hourihane
Rounding the bend of Prospect Avenue, on an elevated parcel of land within walking distance to the lake and town, the Sturgis family saw the ideal location for their custom home to be designed by renowned architect William Otis.
Originally from France, Charles Inches Sturgis started working as a clerk at the Burlington Railroad and worked his way up in the ranks to become an executive. In 1893, he married Margaret Noble, a New Yorker. They had two sons, Frank and Robert.
The Sturgis family maintained a home in the Gold Coast and planned for 660 Prospect Avenue to be their summer home by the lake. Interestingly, and very unusual for this time, title to the land and the blueprints were solely in the name of Mrs. Margaret Sturgis.
William Otis was a renowned architect on the North Shore whose most notable work in Winnetka includes Christ Church on Sheridan Road and the Samuel Sewall Greeley School. The original blueprints for 660 Prospect Avenue remain intact and have been passed down through each of its five owners.
They reveal that William Otis designed the home with an incredible amount of care and detail. Every molding, column, and cabinet was painstakingly drawn by hand on large architectural drafting paper. The attention to detail is evident in the wood wainscoting that elegantly bends and wraps up the staircase, the leaded glass windows in the entryway, the exterior dental tooth crown molding that circles the home’s exterior, and the home’s unique original five fireplaces.
No expense was spared for the creation of this Georgian Revival home. Mrs. Sturgis had the finest hand-painted Zuber wallpaper flown in from France for the front hall. On the blueprints, she had lightly traced in pencil the placement of her wool and cashmere rugs in the hall and formal sitting room.
The home was completed in 1902, and Margaret and Charles moved in with their two sons and Margaret’s mother. Tragedy struck the family in 1919 when the Sturgis’s younger son Frank died from asthma-related complications, just one year before he was to leave for his first year at Harvard. The family was never the same after Frank died. They sold the family home to Helen and Ralph Hobart and moved to a smaller residence in Winnetka.
Remarkably, the Hobart family made 660 Prospect their home for 50 years, from 1919 until 1971. The Hobarts made a few alterations to the home. Most significantly, they tore down the small conservatory adjacent to the dining room and built a two-story addition to create a sunroom and second-story sleeping porch.
In 1971, the Hobart estate sold the property to James and Rochelle Fisch. James Fisch ran a successful psychiatry practice out of the home’s library. Patients came and went through the screened porch entrance. The Fisch family sold to Michael and Judith Duhl in 1986.
The Duhls loved the home and were passionate about maintaining its authenticity. The interior became a backdrop to showcase their love of antiques and artwork. When it was time to downsize and move on, the Duhls were adamant that they would only sell the house to someone who loved it as much as they did. For almost one year, they weathered the storm of the fallen housing market and refused many offers from developers to tear it down.
In 2011, the Duhls sold the home to us, Justine and David Hourihane, the fifth and current owners. We will forever be indebted to the Duhls for their commitment to saving this home. As the current owner of 660 Prospect, I often imagine what Margaret Sturgis must have felt when she first walked the halls of her custom-built home in 1902. I know I will not forget the moment when I toured the house for the first time. I was captured by the home’s intricate architectural detail, soaring ceilings and grand scale rooms. I remember the way my hand felt on the bannister that twisted artfully up the stairs in one continuous piece. The most remarkable thing about the home to me was that each owner had, for the most part, preserved the home’s integrity such that none of the original character had been erased by incongruous renovations.
The home’s original library was completely intact, many bathrooms had original tile work and sinks, and the butler’s pantry retained its original cabinetry from 1902. We had the unique opportunity to see the original owner and architect’s intent in design.
My husband David and I grew up in older homes, and we loved their character and charm. We knew we wanted to preserve the architectural integrity of the home; however, we did not want to live in a museum. We wanted this house to feel like home.
We chose architect Julie Gross, of Stoneberg & Gross, to lead the crusade to restore 660 Prospect to its original grandeur, while at the same time bringing the home up to today’s modern standards. Restoration can be uniquely challenging compared to a renovation. In restoration, you are returning something to its original condition. Restoration often means a reliance on unique tradesmen and craftsmen with very specific expertise. This reliance makes restoration often more costly, more detailed and more time-consuming.
For example, every single doorknob and mortise box were taken apart, repaired, re-plated, polished, and returned to the original door to which they belonged. The screened porch had been altered a few times over the years, but with the home’s original blueprints we replicated how the screens were originally built and restored the screened porch to its original condition.
Most notably, on the home’s exterior we replicated the original shutters and decorative roof railing balustrade on the front façade. Also, we completely rebuilt the dilapidated south deck to its original specifications. Every component of our restoration required lengthy discussions, research, meetings with countless tradesmen and Julie Gross’s constant perseverance for perfection and excellence in the execution of the details.
What I found most challenging was the line between preserving the past and starting anew. These decisions were sometimes easy and sometimes painful. The gorgeous mahogany trimmed library, while beautiful, was simply not practical for our young family. We opened up this room to the sprawling kitchen beyond. Therefore, we altered the room’s original purpose as a library with the removal of several of the library bookcases, but we gained a practical and cozy family room adjacent to our kitchen.
Another difficult decision was tearing down the original barn, fitted with a horse stall and hayloft that sat on the property. It was cost-prohibitive and impractical to restore it. Instead, we built a three car garage that mirrored the home’s Georgian exterior.
As we neared completion of our restoration, neighbors often stopped my husband and me to express their gratitude to us for restoring 660 Prospect Avenue. At first, I was surprised by how much this project meant to the neighborhood. Through these moments, I began to see our larger part in the community. Restoring this house was not just about us, our architect and the construction team: it was about preserving a piece of the past, letting this regal home stand proudly once again, and honoring the architectural rhythm of the street and the neighborhood.
My hope is that this restoration will inspire other prospective homeowners to take a chance on an older home and inspire the Village to create an environment that is supportive and encouraging to home renovators. If Winnetkans want to preserve the integrity and architectural beauty of our neighborhoods, preserving our older homes is the only way to make that possible. Our efforts to preserve these homes are a commitment to remembering our town’s history.