Moving History Forward in Riverside, Illinois


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By Michelangelo Sabatino, Photos by Serge Ambrose

Preserving a modernist house can be a challenging process that requires a range of skills: observation, historical research, and sense for design. Equally important is the skill of patience if one hopes to learn to enjoy the process. Unlike a classic automobile that must be returned to its original condition in order to hold its value, the preservation of a modernist house that has undergone inappropriate ‘improvements’ requires a creative approach that combines an understanding of history with an appreciation for the future. In short, one must be able and willing to move history forward.

View of the front of the Benda house in Riverside, Illinois

When we recently moved to Chicago, we seized upon the opportunity to purchase a modernist house designed in 1938 by architect Winston Elting (1907-1968) for the Bohemian-American lawyer Francis J. Benda. Our solid brick masonry flat-roofed house is a notable example of modern architecture built during the latter half of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal era. Influenced by European Rationalism and American organicism, significant design elements include steel casement corner windows (no longer extant), aluminum staircase and balcony railings, and glass blocks. Elting placed the living and dining room at the rear of the house, facing the garden and incorporated a two-car garage at the front, both unconventional design choices for the time. The Benda house was Elting’s first independent commission. Soon after, he began collaborating on projects with architect Paul Schweikher (1903-1997) and over the next fifteen years the firm (Schweikher & Elting) designed several notable buildings.

Located approximately twelve miles west of downtown Chicago, the town of Riverside - branded as a “Village in the Forest” - was the first planned community in the United States to integrate landscaped green spaces and parkways with amenities for urban living. Designed in 1869 by preeminent American landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) and Calvert Vaux (1824-1895), both of whom viewed nature as an antidote to the perceived excesses of the metropolis, Riverside gradually became a site of architectural innovation with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Tomek House (1906) and Coonley Estate (1908) and Louis Sullivan’s Babson House (1907). Riverside was designated as a National Historic District in 1970.
View of rear of Benda house
Detail of entry and stair.
As architects and historians we hope our preservation efforts directed to the Benda house will bring much needed attention to the modern architectural legacy of Riverside and Chicago. With original drawings on hand, our preservation project begins with cleaning and repairing the common brick façades, renovating the bathrooms and kitchen to a ‘contemporary’ 1930s aesthetic. Additionally we are in the process of submitting an application for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. We presented a brief history of our house at the recent Docomomo US Symposium in Minnesota. We hope to be much further along in the process by next year’s meeting so we can share more results.

Michelangelo Sabatino (PhD) is Professor and Director of the PhD Program in Architecture at the IIT College of Architecture. msabatino(AT)

Serge Ambrose is an architect. Together with Docomomo US Board Member Gunny Harboe, he is teaching a summer course entitled Conserving Modern Architectural Heritage in the IIT College of Architecture.