Rothners save and restore historic Wright home

A local couple renovated a historic home and donated the building to the Jewish Federation.

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Gale and Rickey Rothner stand in the newly renovated home.

A historic Frank Lloyd Wright home has been saved from the wrecking ball by Chicagoans Gale and Rickey Rothner, who have restored the Prairie Style masterpiece and carefully renovated it to appeal to modern homebuyers.  

The house, built in 1906 for rare-book dealer George Madison Millard, stands as one of Wright's earliest Prairie style houses.  Renowned for its 68 original art glass windows, it sits just a block from Lake Michigan in east Highland Park. The National Park Service added the house to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

However, a century after it was built, the house had fallen into disrepair-and had languished on the market so long that its owners had received conditional approval from the Highland Park Historic Preservation Commission to demolish it.

"They were at the point of tearing it down-and that's the point at which I got involved," Gale Rothner said. She and her husband Rickey purchased the 3,000-square foot house in 2016.

"I thought it would take six months to renovate," she laughed. "It took three years. Everything that could go wrong did. There had been water damage, and it needed new HVAC, plumbing, electrical-you name it, we replaced it. So now the guts of the house are brand new."

As beautiful as the home was, it also needed updates to meet the needs of a modern family-but those renovations had to remain true to the original design.

"We had to maximize every square inch of space," Gale Rothner said. And maximize space she did, turning the cellar into a huge bonus room; converting the sewing room into a master suite; and transforming the maid's room into a mudroom and laundry room, complete with a pet sink. She recreated the garden wall and added a large garage.

She also added storage throughout the house, copying designs for cabinets Wright had rendered but never executed, tucking built-in dressers into the bathrooms, a china cabinet in the kitchen, and a pantry in the adjoining vestibule. The original plans for the house included a buffet that was never built, "so I built one," she said. All the built-in cabinetry is cherry.

Gale is most proud of the kitchen, in which she maximized both storage and cooking space, added state-of-the-art appliances and honed granite counters-and opened a wall into the dining room.  

In the 1930s, "Wright was the first person to open up the kitchen and dining room," said John H. Waters, Preservation Programs Manager for the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, so it seemed fitting to retrofit the Millard house that way.

According to architect Douglas Gilbert, the biggest challenge with the Millard project was "dealing with the constraints of space. . . and incorporating a garage in a sensitive way that made it feel like it belongs to the house."

The newly-restored Millard house both honors its unique place in history and offers modern conveniences.

"I think this idea of presenting ways to make these [Wright] houses viable is something we need to promote," Waters said.

The Rothners are gifting the building to the Jewish Federation, which will ultimately benefit CJE SeniorLife. Gale Rothner has always been grateful for the services CJE provided her widowed grandmother, Yetta Richman, which improved her quality of life immeasurably.

"I said to myself, if I can ever do something for them, I would like to say thank-you," Gale said.  

"We were trying to do two nice things at once: save the house and give to charity," Rickey said. 

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