When Oscar G. Mayer moved to Evanston in 1927, he chose a residence befitting his iconic family’s station in life—a 1901 brick Chateauesque-style mansion in the burgeoning Lakeshore Historic District.
The story of his father, Oscar F. Mayer, is well documented. A Bavarian immigrant moves to Chicago in the 1870s to find his fortune, discovering a niche in the sausage and processed meat industry. By the 1920s, Oscar G. and his brother were ready to take over the family business, and Evanston’s proximity to downtown Chicago made it a perfect choice.
So, he made the 1901 castle his home and lived in Evanston until his death in 1965—maintaining the property’s turn-of the-century charm, often hosting lavish parties in the ballroom.
Over the decades to follow, it went through a series of owners, sitting vacant for years before Jim Kastenholz and Scott Hargadon took ownership. Once one of Forest Avenue’s historic gems—designed by the architect duo of Hallberg & Strum—the property became overgrown with ivy and invaded by rodents. Neighborhood kids were convinced it was haunted.
But in 2015, the fate of the Oscar Mayer mansion changed when Evanstonian Kastenholz and Hargadon bought the property with a mission to not only restore the landmark to its former glory, but give it every modern feature a brand new home would have.
“Both of us really, really love the beauty and detail of old houses,” says Kastenholz, explaining that their business, J&S Home Renovation, looks for dilapidated relics that can be brought back to life. “This property was dilapidated beyond dilapidated. When you walked through those doors, it was as if no one had changed it in more than 100 years.”
In some ways, that posed a tremendous challenge. It still even had the original boiler from 1901. But in other ways, Kastenholz says it was like walking back through history and discovering a bounty of architectural treasures that were essentially frozen in time.
“It was amazing,” he continues. “There was just all this beautiful turn of the century wood and everything was original.
There were the original light fixtures, the floors were original…even the bathrooms were original. But at the same time, you are walking into this house that is in dire need of everything.”
His business partner took more convincing that this could be a good investment.
“I was a little daunted by the lack of curb appeal of the building, which was covered with vines and very dark and dilapidated,” confesses Hargadon. “It had essentially been abandoned. The heat was off. The water was off. Everything was disconnected.”
After a year of meticulous work and restoration, the Oscar Mayer mansion has gone from dilapidated to dazzling. Today, the 7,400-square foot home—currently on the market through Baird & Warner for $2,950,000 while crews put finishing touches on the project—offers the best of the both worlds.
Under the guidance of Chicago architect John Eifler—whose notable restoration projects with Eifler & Associates include The Music Box Theatre and Garfield Park Conservatory—the historic home has been resurrected to its 1901 splendor but with every modern amenity a family could need.
The exterior boasts restored gutters and a new roof with beautifully restored brick and art glass windows while inside, a new energy efficient boiler runs heat through original radiators.
A new kitchen offers appliances by SubZero, LaCorneu, Bosch, and Franke with stunning new bathrooms that blend the old and new, including one of Hargadon’s favorite rooms in the house.
“There is a large stained glass window depicting an ocean scene in the master bathroom. It’s truly remarkable,” he says, adding that he also loves the original billiards room that adjoins the ballroom. “I can just imagine all the men going up there after dinner, smoking cigars and playing pool.”
Kastenholz agrees. “That’s what’s so neat about this place. I can just picture guys all dressed up in period clothes, talking about whether Teddy Roosevelt is going to get elected,” he says, adding that he is also partial the dining room. “The entire room is wrapped in the original oak paneling from when the house was built in 1901. It’s in perfect condition after more than 100 years. There is also a stunningly beautiful hand-carved fireplace mantle and surround, with griffins and ball and claw feet.”
Despite the condition of the mansion when they rescued it, both Kastenholz and Hargadon agree that the property was a very rare find with a quality of craftsmanship and materials that hasn’t been seen in over a century.
“The masonry alone was built to stand 1,000 years,” explains Kastenholz, who is also a long-time contractor on the North Shore. “The quality of this building would be very expensive to replicate today.”
And now that the exterior has been fully restored, Hargadon says it’s good for another 100 years, and then some.