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Article updated: 6/30/2013 11:36 AM

Geneva couple restores Curtis house, adds landscaping to match


Homes that predate the Civil War are few and far between in Illinois. But, one such home, completely renovated and enhanced with modern conveniences, additional space and gorgeous gardens, is currently listed for $739,000.

The Silas W. Curtis Italianate farmhouse, located at 1301 Batavia Ave. in Geneva, has been lovingly cared for by Craig and Donna Ostrye since 1999. The couple purchased the home out of bankruptcy at a time when it was so dilapidated that the only other offer came from someone who wanted to tear it down, recalled Jamie Daniels, the agent from Miscella Real Estate who sold it to them and has since retired.

"We are 'old house' people," explained Craig. "I grew up in an early 1900s foursquare home in West Virginia and before we bought this house, Donna and I lived in a house in Batavia that was virtually its sister."

"It had the same basic layout and appearance from the street," he continued. "We loved the Batavia house but were ready to move to a place with more privacy and convenience and this home had both. It is quiet since it is right next to the Fabyan Forest Preserve and you can also walk to the Geneva train station from here."

They also fell in love with the house itself -- its curved, floating front staircase, front and back parlors, formal dining room, back staircase for the maid and even the transoms above the bedroom doors, designed to enhance cross ventilation.

According to historic records, which often contain conflicting information, the land on which the home sits was originally part of the claim of Allen Ware, who built a barn for his stock and planted an apple orchard, the first in Kane County. It is believed that the core of the present home was built on the property by Ware sometime in the 1840s.

Silas and Emma Curtis and their five children took up residency in September 1849 after paying a land agent, Ralph Haskins, $2,388 for the land, barn and small house. They had moved to Geneva from either Massachusetts or Georgia, depending upon which source you believe.

The Curtis family had been in the United States since before the American Revolution. In fact, Silas' grandfather fought in the War for Independence and then his son, Elbert, fought in the Civil War.

The Curtises remodeled and enlarged the house to its current look during the 1860s, probably shortly after the end of the Civil War. Curtis farmed the land for some years before entering the "mercantile business" and later selling lots from the north of his property to people who wanted to build homes there. In fact, some of Geneva's finest old homes stand on the lots that Curtis subdivided from his original holdings, according to a self-guided tour of historic Geneva, compiled in 1985 in honor of the community's sesquicentennial.

The property continued to be held by some member of the Curtis family until 1913. There have been many subsequent owners.

As soon as the Ostryes moved in they had to replace the old roof and a broken sewer line. Then, for the next five years Craig and his son worked nonstop, alongside contractors, to replace the wood clapboard, update the kitchen and bathrooms, remodel the powder room and add a deck. They also added decorative millwork to the living room addition that had been put on by previous owners in the 1950s.

Contractors replaced all of the windows, except those facing the street, added air conditioning and removed the screened porch and the old sleeping porch above it, replacing them with a morning room off the kitchen and a master suite above that.

"Craig and I have done so many projects together and this has been a favorite," Donna said.

The two are avid gardeners so they saw the historic house and its one acre of grounds as a blank palette for their combined creativity when they moved in. Everything but the oldest trees, including the landscape terracing and extensive gardens, are the result of the Ostryes' hard work and creativity.

An artist and drapery designer, Donna saw the garden as another medium for her creativity, removing scrub trees and replacing them with picturesque plantings that enhanced the character of the house. And vice versa, they feel that the house enhances the gardens they created and the adjoining forest preserve.

"Our neighbors tell us that they feel like they are driving into a park when they enter our small subdivision of five homes, thanks to the plantings we have done," Craig said.

"New homes can be so sterile," he added. "We enjoy the character of an old house, but we don't want it to just be a showcase. We want it to be truly livable and that is what we have worked toward."

"I am a lover of pattern and fabric and that works best in a Victorian-era home," Donna said. "I had lots of fun with the window treatments and other fabrics in this house. But I also love the history of the house and wanted to do my part to save a piece of local history. So, I feel good about what we have done here.

"Many people have stopped by here over the years to tell us stories about when they or their parents or grandparents lived here," she said. "One woman even told us that she was married in this house."

A man from Oregon whose family members lived in the house from 1914 to 1945 when the property was known as "Orchard Place" also stopped by to tell them stories and later sent old pictures from his father's photo album. He recalled the swimming pool with a pergola that sat on the hill behind the house, as well as the barn that was situated immediately behind the house. It burned to the ground in 1936, thanks to a grease fire in the small caretaker's apartment upstairs, he told them. By 1952, when the man stopped by Geneva during an Army leave, the front porches of the house which his family had sold seven years before were gone.

"We have considered it a privilege to have lived in this house but now we want to be able to travel more spontaneously. So we feel that it time to pass this legacy on to someone else," Craig stated. "Older homes require a certain amount of upkeep that you can't do when you are traveling."

For more information about this updated, 3,600-square-foot gem with its four bedrooms, 2 baths and granite kitchen including AGA cooker, phone Shauna Wiet of Miscella Real Estate at (630) 849-6223.

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