The latest victim of the Great Recession’s gut-wrenching freefall is now on the block.
Ernest Hemingway’s boyhood home in Oak Park, Ill. – the place where he lived, rebelled and wrote from age seven to 17 – has been listed for sale at a ridiculously low $525,000.
That’s a modest $5,000 more than the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park paid for it in 2001.
The three-story residence is significant because it’s the place from which the author began to explore the things he’d later cover in short stories and novels. From there, he’d write for the Park River Forest High School “Trapeze,” still published today. From there, he’d pen his first lines of poetry too.
“He turned his mother’s music room into a boxing ring there,” says John Berry, director of the foundation. “His father took him out into the woods from there– the house was pretty much on the edge of Chicago, because Oak Park was the first Chicago suburb. From there, he fished and canoed the Des Plaines River.”
Berry has touched base already with Hemingway’s last surviving son, Patrick, to no avail. “He’s sympathetic, but it’s not his house,” he said. “He gives mostly to the Kennedy Library, where Hemingway’s archives are.”
He’s not yet contacted the National Trust for Historic Preservation, saying that’s next on the list.
The foundation bought the 4,200 square-foot house, designed by Hemingway’s mother and Chicago architect Henry Fiddelke in 1906, with a low interest loan from the Park National Bank in Oak Park. The Village of Oak Park kicked up $100,000 for its purchase, leaving the foundation paying interest on a $420,000 note. There was some hope that the bank might simply forgive the note and hand over the deed to the foundation. That never happened.
In 2009, the Federal Reserve took over the Park National Bank, and sold it to U.S. Bank. The loan’s half-percent interest rate was ratcheted up to a full point, and the bank made it clear that it was time to retire the note.
“Two or three years ago, we could have gotten three-quarters of a million dollars for this house,” a bemoaning Berry says.
The foundation, which operates the Hemingway Museum on Oak Park Avenue, partnered with nearby Dominican University a few years back to restore the home’s roof, refinish its floors and install two new boilers. Dominican had plans to turn the home into an educational and cultural institution, but could not raise the needed funds.
The proposed sale could not come at a more ironic time, since 2011 seemed Hemingway’s best year in decades. His first volume of letters was published, along with Paul Hendrickson’s “Hemingway’s Boat.” He showed up as himself in a fairly farcical role in Woody Allen’s film, “Midnight in Paris,” and in Cuba, his Finca Vigia was impeccably restored, along with his boat, Pilar. Later this year, HBO will air “Hemingway & Gellhorn.”
So for some thoughtful buyer, this home could be the opportunity of a lifetime.
“It’s an historic space for an iconic American author,” Berry says. “Whether there’s anything left in the house, stuffed in the walls of his bedroom, I just don’t know.”
But isn’t it pretty to think so?
For more on the foundation and the house, go to http://www.ehfop.org/
For more on the restoration of the Finca Vigia, go to http://architectsandartisans.com/index.php/2011/11/cuban-u-s-preservationists-team-up/