Exploring Austin's architectural heritage

A look at the work of Frederick Schock in Austin

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By LACEY SIKORA

Contributing Reporter

The 1970s was a decade of firsts in terms of opening up privately owned architectural treasures as local fundraisers. In 1965, the National Historic Preservation Act was passed with an eye toward encouraging the maintenance and restoration of the country's architectural and cultural treasures. 

Shortly thereafter in Oak Park, Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple was named the village's first National Historic Landmark in 1971, and the organization that is today the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust got its start restoring Wright's iconic Home and Studio. The Wright Plus Housewalk was founded a few years later.

Just across Austin Boulevard another architect's legacy was being celebrated. In the late 1970s the Austin Schock Neighborhood Association's housewalk opened up architectural treasures on the West Side to history and architecture buffs. 

For most years of the walk's approximately 20-year tenure, the tours spotlighted the work of architect Frederick Schock, who once worked extensively in Austin before it was annexed by the City of Chicago in 1899.

The neighborhood encompassing the Schock houses was planned by Oak Park developer Henry W. Austin, who began selling lots in the then-suburb of Chicago in the late 1800s. 

Austin wanted to create a well-planned bucolic suburb whose mansions would rival those of Kenwood on the South Side of the city. Key to Austin's vision was the engagement of local architect Frederick Schock, who built his own house and his mother's house in the neighborhood. 

He also designed the village's railroad station, library and social club. While the public buildings no longer remain, four Schock-designed houses anchor the Austin Schock Historic Neighborhood to this day. 

The historic district, marked roughly by Austin Boulevard on the west, Central Avenue on the east, Chicago Avenue on the north and Jackson Boulevard on the south, rivals those of its tonier neighbors to the west. 

The four remaining Schock Houses are located at 5749 and 5804 W. Race Avenue and 5804 and 5810 W. Midway Park. In 1999, the city of Chicago designated the Queen Anne and shingle-style Schock houses in Austin as historic landmarks.

 

Architectural pride

Jerry Ehrenberger, who works in Oak Park at the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, purchased a Schock home in 1992. When he first moved to the Austin area as a renter in the 1980s, he recalls taking long walks around the neighborhood and marveling at the Schock houses.

"For about 20 years, there was an annual housewalk put on by the Austin Schock Neighborhood Association," Ehrenberger said. "It was partially formed by Bobbie Raymond of the Housing Center. She saw the potential of all these great houses in Austin."

Ehrenberger moved briefly to Humboldt Park, but then a friend told him that his favorite house in Austin had a for sale sign in the front yard. According to Ehrenberger, he jumped at the chance to buy it. 

"I saw the house, put in a bid, and suddenly, I was a homeowner," he said.

The house needed a lot of work, but luckily, Ehrenberger says a real estate friend was along for the ride. 

"He was more grounded and looking at the doors, windows and structures," Ehrenberger said. "Meanwhile, I was thinking, 'I could put a Christmas tree here.' The structure was in good shape, but it needed a lot of work inside and out."

He set out to renovate one room a year, working to repair plaster and strip innumerable layers of varnish from the woodwork. It took him about 12 years to tackle it all.

Ehrenberger's house was originally designed by Schock for his mother, Marie, and Ehrenberger says it is the most modest of the four remaining Schock houses. 

"Three of the houses are huge," he said. "One was Schock's house, where he brought clients to see the kind of work he did. The house next door is a three-story mansion with a ballroom on the third floor, and the house diagonal to me has been re-sided in cedar shake shingles."

When the city designated the homes landmarks in 1999, Ehrenberger says his more modest house was included because of its connection to the architect's mother. He notes that the house's original plans were published in an 1888 article in Building Budget Magazine. 

"It was called 'A Cheap Suburban Residence.' Schock was on the magazine's board and planned to start a series on inexpensive houses," Ehrenberger said. "This house was meant to be the first in a series."

For Ehrenberger, who grew up with very modest means in a small town in Nebraska, it has been a life's pleasure to live and restore his historic home. 

"I'm honored and grateful to be living in a house like this," he said. "I never imagined I'd be living in a house this size and with so much character and history."

For him, living in Austin is a part of that dream. 

"There's some amazing diversity happening in the Austin Village area," Ehrenberger said. "I've been here almost 27 years, and I've seen some wonderful improvements in homeownership. I think a lot of that has to do with our lower property taxes here, and being right next door to Oak Park and close to the Green Line and Eisenhower is all wonderful. I've got some great neighbors, many of whom have been here as long or longer than me."

 

Oak Park's Schock connection

Oak Park River Forest Historical Society Executive Director Frank Lipo says that the architect does have a legacy in Oak Park, but it is subtle. 

"The old Guitar Fun building [at 400 Lake St.] and the apartment building next door on Ridgeland were designed by Schock," he said.

He points out that in Austin, Schock's work is classic Victorian, but Schock worked in Oak Park closer to the end of his career, and his style had changed. 

"He was akin to E. E. Roberts in that he evolved and did a wide variety of styles," Lipo said. "In 1912, when the Oak Park buildings were designed, you're not designing community buildings that look Victorian. You're doing so in a more Arts and Crafts or Prairie Style."

In Oak Park, Schock-designed residences include the stucco Prairie-Style home at 136 Wesley Ave. and the Italian Renaissance style home at 647 Linden Ave. Lipo says these styles point to the rich diversity of local architecture. 

"We tend to think of architecture around here as just being one era, but that's just not true," Lipo said. "When you look at architects like Schock or Charles White, who designed the Cheney Mansion and the post office, often if the architects are old enough, you see growth."

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