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A Piece of Lake Bluff History to Call Home

Home was built by John Murdock, a partner in RKO, which backed films like King Kong and Citizen Kane.

 

When Queen Anne came to Lake Bluff in 1905, the village welcomed a quaint, 5,000-square-foot icon to its neighborhood. 

No, it wasn't the prominent 17th Century leader who stood three stories high, either, but the architectural styled gem of the same name.

One hundred and 10 years later, the historical landmark still graces 550 E. Center Ave. And its owner, Catherine McKechney, who's also president of the Lake Bluff History Museum, couldn't be more thankful for the exquisite surroundings — composed of original oak paneling, cut-glass windows and crown molding, among other age-old fixtures.

“I loved raising my four children here,” McKechney beamed. “I feel we've lived in a piece of art, and it's no coincidence that all my children have pursued the arts in some manner, as a career or hobby.”

Anything but run of the mill, the home was built by John Murdock, its first owner and a partner in Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO), which backed such films as King Kong and Citizen Kane.

The house consists of six bedrooms, an elegant family room, overlooking a wrap-around porch, and several other charming spaces, including a smoking room (now an office), music room and sewing room. With one of the largest backyards in town and a remodeled kitchen, which complements its elegant surroundings, the house is even more welcoming. 

“Here is where people gathered over the last 100 years to celebrate the arts,” McKechney said of the music room. “There have been great parties in this room, from family gatherings to cast parties...in which my children performed or I produced.”

One performer who may have stopped by, she guessed, was legendary comedian Jack Benny, who grew up in nearby Waukegan.

“Living in a historical home, you sense you're a chapter to a story that began before you arrived,” she said, “and will continue for generations to come.”

Nestled in the family room, among heirloom furniture she had collected throughout the years, Patch continued to ask McKechney questions. Below is our Q&A with the self-proclaimed “Bluffer”:

Patch: How does your home, in part, define Lake Bluff?

McKechney: It is the only surviving Queen Anne Victorian (home). There were many, at one time, which were used as boarding homes, but those were either demolished or destroyed by fires in the days when our volunteer fire department depended on bucket brigades and horse drawn wagons....

This home has had some very interesting residents, who contributed to the community. Lake Bluff has always been a place where artists, intellectuals, free thinkers and those who fought for social change chose to live.

This spirit still exists today in our community, where volunteerism, patriotism, and democracy are strong values...where we may disagree with each other but we believe in your right to express your beliefs.

Patch: How is living in a historical home different from living in a modern one?

McKechney: I have only lived in one modern home, and for me, the difference is I had no attachment to it, emotionally. This emotional connection seems to be a common thread from all those who have lived at 550 E. Center Avenue.

The family I purchased the home from comes back to visit, from time to time, to bring their children back to see where their mom or dad grew up.

I had a woman ask if she could come through the house, as she had lived here as a child in the 50s. Her mother had been a school teacher in Lake Bluff... though, now in her 90s, she always loved this house. Her daughter, now in her 70s, had fond memories of hiding in special places to read as a child, as did my own children.

It really is a magical place for children and their imaginations.

Patch: What room connects most vividly to the past?

McKechney: Again, the music room connects me to the past of my own family and the original owner who brought vaudeville acts to entertain folks from Lake Bluff as far back as the early 1900s.

Patch: Does your home need a lot of upkeep?

McKechney: I hear this concern all the time, but it has not, in my experience.

Every home needs upkeep, even if it's just 20 years old. I haven't found it required anymore upkeep than any other house.

Patch: And your favorite season to live on Center Avenue is?

McKechney: I love them all.

Summer brings sitting on the porch and watching the world go by...enjoying the beach. Fall brings Halloween which is one of my favorite holidays. A few green flood lights and a fog machine with scary music and this house is ready for (upwards of 1500) trick or treaters.

I really enjoy seeing all the children and they are so appreciative of my decorations for the holidays.

Christmas is beautiful, and I have an old fashioned Santa in the turret window on the third floor that local children look forward to seeing each year. Santa comes with the house.

Patch: What do you say to someone who claims your home is a mansion, secluded from the world?

McKechney: Being in real estate, I see many homes, and this is not a mansion.

When I bought the home in the early 1990s, it looked like a haunted house and needed a ton of work, which is why it appealed to me. It was a chance to live close to the lake, and because it needed so much work, it was somewhat affordable.

There is a bumper sticker that has become popular of late that reads: "I don't live in the real world, I live in Lake Bluff". There's definitely some truth to this, but if you asked my children, they would say Lake Bluff was the best place in the world to spend their childhood, and I would do it again in a minute.

We are 'Bluffers,' through and through.

Do you have a historical home you'd like Patch to write about? If so, email Jiim Powers, editor for Lake Forest-Lake Bluff, at james.powers@patch.com.

 

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