Tinkertoy founder’s mansion up for sale

While crescents trace the woodwork of the library’s dentil molding, the curvature merely hints at the classic roundness of a Tinkertoy disc.

In fact, not one Tinkertoy could be found during a recent private tour of the Roger Pettit house, 1425 Ridge Ave. in Evanston.

Originally owned by the Pettit family of Tinkertoy manufacturing fame, the home is being listed for sale at $1.6 million. The owners, who spent a quarter million dollars on renovations this past decade, will move back to Chicago.

“We’ve actually tried to restore it into the period [circa 1920s] that it was built back then,” said Jamie Frame, a business developer, who has owned the estimated 5,000-square-feet house with her husband, David Piotrowski, since a Feb. 24, 2004, closing sale. Frame and Piotrowski say they looked at roughly 50 properties before buying in Evanston.

With a “dipping pool” outside, the Pettit home sits on an oversized lot that backs up to a rose garden. The building was moved to its present location in 1927 from about a block away.

Renovations have been time-consuming but rewarding, say the owners, who did not know the house’s famous history until after the sale.

“We had no idea,” Frame said, of the Tinkertoy big reveal.

“We had always wanted to restore a historic house, but through the whole purchase process, we were never told whose home it was,” she said.

Piotrowski credits his wife for skillfully working with contractors and restorers to get the work done on time and within a reasonable budget. Keeping the integrity of the house by not changing it structurally was their biggest challenge, he said.

“We took great care to restore the house to its original look and feel,” Piotrowski said. “It leaves us with a wonderful feeling as we pass this address to hopefully another family with the same vision.”

Born in Altoona, Pa., in 1881, Robert Pettit is an entrepreneurial success story. In 1914, he and Charles Pajeau, both of Evanston, partnered on an idea to launch the newfangled Tinkertoy. At first, it was a flop. But with some marketing ingenuity, the inventors struck gold, and kids couldn’t get enough of the toy construction sets.

Called Toy Tinkers, the business produced millions of sets in the first five years. Santa Claus had mandatory requests to place kid-friendly wood under Christmas trees.

At the toy’s 100th anniversary, both Frame and Piotrowski said they grew up appreciating Tinkertoys.

“We did, when we were tiny, tiny,” said Frame, with a laugh. “We did have a history as children with that toy, so it makes it extra special.”

Pettit, his wife Rachel and their daughter Rachel (born in 1915), lived near the Evanston manufacturing plant and were affluent members of Evanston society. The younger Rachel, for example, came out as a debutante twice in New York and Evanston.

As members of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and the Evanston Club, they built a community life that was well documented, in part, due to Robert Pettit’s love for moving image captures

Pettit, who died in 1943, recorded on a 16 mm Kodak 1920s home movie camera. The films have been copied for public appreciation and historical interpretation.

His documentary captures include 1925 Evanston Fourth of July footage and outdoor bridge party guests mugging for the camera in their 1924 flapper bobs.

The Pettit’s love of animals was also apparent on film. One can see both Rachels enjoying the dipping pool, which still exists.

Frame and Piotrowski also love dogs. They own three rescue pugs, Toby, Gunther and Hazel. Chloe, a calico cat, is also a rescue.

“The Pettit family, they were all about their animals,” said Frame, who is passionate about the pet rescue cause. “I really, really believe that it [this house] was calling our name.”

One decade after they purchased the home, two photo shoots by Sotheby’s have captured more imagery to encourage a sale.

“It is sad, it is sad,” said Frame. “We have put our heart and soul into restoring this house.

Serious, qualified buyers can contact listing agent Carolyn Smith, senior vice-president and broker associate at Jameson Sotheby’s International Realty, 2934 Central St. in Evanston. Call 847-492-1252 or email csmith@jamesonsir.com.

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