Driving rain, lightning, thunder – even nickel-sized hail – couldn’t dampen the spirits of visitors to last week's Operation Renovation kickoff party at Lake Forest’s Ragdale House. Guests filled both floors of the historic home with lively conversation as they explored the empty structure.
The celebration signaled the start of the active construction phase to renovate the landmark structure. Ragdale House was built in 1897 by Arts and Crafts architect Howard Van Doren Shaw and is now home to the nation’s fourth largest artists’ community.
Jack Danch, director of property at Ragdale, sighed as he surveyed the stripped walls and vacant rooms. “This house has never been empty since it was built,” he mused.
Danch and Ragdale staff have spent the last six months emptying the double-peaked, white stucco home along Green Bay Road and placing all of the items in storage. A portion of the storage space was donated by Metro Self Storage in Lake Bluff and dumpsters for the project were provided by Groot Industries.
Renovation of the historic structure is necessary to bring the infrastructure – heating, wiring and plumbing – up to 21st century standards. Bulley and Andrews LLC serves as the project’s general contractors, while Johnson Lasky Architects works on the architectural aspects of the restoration. The reconstruction work, which began last week, is expected to take nine months.
Ryan Stetler of Bulley and Andrews said that the first month of the home’s restitution will involve placement of the exterior scaffolding and interior work by mechanical, electrical and plumbing tradespeople. Next project phases will include replacement of the windows and doors. Stetler said by late summer or early fall, all of the exterior work should be completed.
When asked if he expects to find some surprises along the way, Stetler said, “No, I think there’s very little unknown. Walker’s [Johnson Lasky Architects] team did a great job with the HSR.”
He continued, “We also found the original drawings for the home and they were very accurate. Will we find major items we didn’t know about? Probably not.”
“I think the entire renovation will go very smoothly,” Stetler added. “The Ragdale Taskforce has been phenomenal to work with.”
Operation Renovation is a public/private partnership established between the Ragdale Foundation and the City of Lake Forest. Under a long-term agreement with the City, the Foundation leases the property and will raise $3 million in private donations to fund restoration of Ragdale House.
Bob Kiely, Lake Forest city manager, said, “We have a community treasure in Ragdale. During this year of the City’s 150th anniversary, this project is not only a tribute to the Ragdale Foundation, but to Howard Van Doren Shaw’s significant legacy in Lake Forest."
To date, nearly $1.6 million in renovation donations and pledges have been received, according to Phoebe Chandler Turner, president of the Ragdale board of trustees. This number includes donations of more than $100,000 made by members of the Ragdale 21st Century Circle of Angels, of which there are currently nine members.
Circle of Angels members will have their names inscribed on stones circling Shaw’s famous fountain on the south side of the property.
Roland Kulla, Ragdale board of trustees vice president and a member of the Ragdale House Taskforce, has committed to funding the restoration of interior paint and wallpaper in the home and will personally paint the interior of the home.
Kulla, who is a visual artist, has taken a forensic approach to determining the history of the interior finishes.
“Some of the original wallpaper was here for 43 years and then Shaw’s daughter replaced it; and the second wallpaper was up for 70 years,” Kulla explained.
“In the original [historic structures report] there was some guessing as to what was underneath,” said Kulla. “Now [that the walls have been stripped] we can actually see what was here. That will inform us when we try to recreate the room.”
In the course of his “forensic” investigation, Kulla uncovered some treasures – including a section of the wall in one bedroom that features a “punch list” of to-do jobs written by Shaw himself.
Many kickoff party visitors took advantage of the invitation to sign the stripped walls on the second floor of the home. One wall signer was Chicago resident Dana Krueger, who grew up in Lake Forest and whose parents still live there. Krueger, whose mother has been involved with Ragdale, said that she has vivid memories of the place from her youth.
“Ragdale is one of those magical places that continues to support artists and provides them with inspiration from this beautiful environment,” she said.
Wandering through the home’s dining room, Lake Forest residents Nancy and Kent Novit said that they have always supported Ragdale and are excited about the restoration. Nancy is a former member of the Friends of Ragdale Board and their daughter interned at the retreat for the last two summers.
“The house is beautiful and it's significant that the city invested in its future,” Kent commented. “We are thrilled in this economy to be able to raise these dollars. It’s a tribute to the Lake Forest community.”
Nancy added, “What I love about Ragdale – as a non-artist – it’s a creative retreat that allows and encourages people who are creative to thrive. Ragdale is a jewel that a lot of places don’t have.”
Visitors also were able to witness the renovation groundbreaking on the site, as principals from Ragdale, Bulley and Andrews, and Johnson Lasky Architects dug up tiles from the home’s back porch and then ceremoniously shattered them.
Also attending the celebration was visual artist Nancy Van Kanegan, a Ragdale resident who walked over to the house from the Meadows Studio, where she is currently on retreat.
“It’s very exciting that a place such as Ragdale exists at all,” Kanegan said, “and that this community values the idea that artists need time and space.”
The Ragdale renovation, Kanegan said, is “insurance that more artists will have the opportunity of time and space in which to explore. It’s a really rarified experience.”