Since this extensive and interesting series doesn’t exist digitally, we’ve decided there’s no better time than the present to share this joint venture between BIHS and the Sun-Standard newspaper that began in 1978, in search of Blue Island’s oldest standing home.
Article by Don Rizzs, with research assistance from Ken Jellema and Ed McGee (Originally published in 1978)
It was a warm summer day in August, 1857. Several farmers driving their produce-laden, horse-drawn wagons down a dirt road which was Western Ave had to suddenly veer to the left because of an enormous oak tree growing in the middle of the road at Western and Burr Oak avenues. That veer to the left in Western Ave still prevails today.
The farmers had a favorite stopping place near this enormous oak – the home of another farmer, Theodore Guenther, located at the corner of Burr Oak and Greenwood Avenues. That home still stands today, occupied by Mr. and Mrs. August Ortlepp. Located at what is now 2506 W. Burr Oak, the home is an excellent architectural example of the most comfortable homesteads of its era.
The original owner and builder of the home, Theodore Guenther, came to the United States in 1846, locating at first in Cooper’s Grove. He was a carpenter and cabinet maker and engaged in these occupations for a number of years, though later becoming a farmer. He was born in the province of Saxony, Germany on December 25, 1823, and married Katherine Rich, a native of Bavaria, Germany in 1851.
In 1855 the Guenthers moved to Blue Island, settling for a short time on Vermont St. In the spring of 1856 Guenther built a wood frame home just north of Burr Oak and became a farmer. He early identified himself with civic activities and soon wielded great influence among the German people of Blue Island. He was elected Worth Township Supervisor, serving in that capacity for 11 years, and also served as a county commissioner, road commissioner, school director and village trustee from 1883-1885.
The Guenthers had seven children: William, Anna K, Katie, Emma C, Andrew M, Dr. Theodore C, and George H, who served as Blue Island City Attorney from 1901-1908. George Guenther was also a very prominent lawyer in the city of Chicago.
Kate Guenther, a school teacher, taught in Chicago schools for 50 years in the Auburn Park area and was Worthy Matron of the Eastern Stars of Auburn Park. As young children, Adelbert and Althea Thoeming can remember their neighbors, the Guenther sisters, entertaining the Eastern Stars in the Guenther home.
Kate Guenther survived the rest of the family until her death at an old age in 1951. The charming pre-Civil War home, with attractive window trim and a beautiful wraparound-style porch with gingerbread eaves, was inherited by the Guenther’s niece, Mrs. Mabel Kearns, who died in the late 1950s. The present owners, Mr. and Mrs. Ortlepp, bought the home from Mrs. Kearns in April, 1952, and moved in the next month.
The original front door of the home has a beautiful carved smoked glass window with a star design. A stately grandfather clock, made by Henry Frett, stands in the front hallway.
Warmth radiates through the spacious, comfortable living room from the crab orchard stone fireplace installed by the Ortlepps and the Victorian fireplace on the north wall which is symbolic of by-gone years.
Well-preserved mahogany moldings, indicative of homes of the middle and late 1800s, prevail throughout the house. Off the large kitchen area is an L-shaped pantry which was used back then for storing food in the winter.
Leading to the second floor is a Victorian stairway. The upstairs bedrooms still have carved, embossed moldings gracing the walls near the ceilings.
Throughout the home are hardwood floors covered with beautiful oriental rugs. There are also large, walk-in closets. In the living room, a spacious bay window on the east wall allows the morning sun to spray warmth throughout the room. On the west wall hangs pictures of Mrs. Ortlepp’s Great-Great-grandparents, James and Virginia Ditchburn of London, and her father, Dr. William L Gregg. Dr. Gregg, who died in 1976, was the last of the original trustees of the Washington and Jane Smith home at 113th and Western.
Outside the home, an unusually large apricot tree of unknown age shades the backyard. It is probably a descendant of the original Guenther farm.
And so, another excellent home takes its place on the roster of heritage rich Blue Island – The City on the Hill.