Building your own home was the way to go in 1900s

Henry Leark, who lived at the curve of north Walnut, is famous in my mind for explaining the source of the charming irregularity in that otherwise straight street on our north side grid.

“It was all due to a horse,” he told me long ago. “When the Lutheran Home was on the highway and the Lutheran Home farm was on Oakton, the farmer who raised crops for the Altenheim gave his horse free rein every day as they rode north for the day’s work.

“It was the horse that found a curve was easier going. By the time a road was built later, it was established that Walnut should have a curve.”

The other Leark story that reflects early Arlington operations was his description of building his first house on the Walnut site.

Young, newly married, working at Benjamin Electric part time, Leark didn’t seem to have much chance of building his own home. But this was a town of homebuilders. Someone down the street from his father had just built a garage he meant to live in until he could convert it into a house.

So Henry Leark took advantage of his father’s offer of one of the three lots he had bought for $250 in 1904 when the sidewalks on Walnut were still wood and pheasants paraded on them like royalty. Leark’s father told him not to worry about the money, “just go ahead and build.”

Young Henry Leark went to the local lumberyard with his house plan.

“If you own the piece of property, show me a tax form,” the lumberman said, “then I’ll give you anything you want.”

There was no question of collateral or interest, Leark remembered.

“They were glad to get our business. They gave me sand and gravel for the foundation and we got the mixer and poured the concrete. Then we started building the house.”

Leark built three rooms, which cost between $2,000 and $3,000 for lumber, roofing, sand, gravel and sewer tiles.

Leark paid it off in three years. “I’d get a couple of dollars and give it to the lumberman. Even if you have $5 or $10, you gave it to him and he took it.”

I wasn’t surprised at Henry Leark’s story because, by the time I interviewed him, I had heard too many men describe casually how they had built their own homes. Really, doesn’t everybody!

Stephen Urich built his house on Highland just a couple of blocks east of Henry Leark’s in the 1950s. He had a singular arrangement. He and his two best friends, Carl Stepanik and his brother, would work together to build houses for each of their families.

“We were all carpenters,” Urich said.

It took the three of them three years, working in their spare time, to finish their residences.

“Although I worked on many houses,” Stephen Urich said, “building a house for my family was a labor of love and not work. After 50 years we still love it.”

He wrote his pastor at St. James, Father Bill Zavaski, that he was sure his house would still be here 100 years from now, “giving refuge to some family for their lifetime.”

A permanent fixture in town, in other words, like the curve on Walnut Avenue.

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