Tony Sarabia Is Moving To A Farm In Iowa, But He Grew Up In This Oak Park House | WBEZ
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Morning Shift

What's That Building? Tony Sarabia's Childhood Home

Beloved Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia is turning off the mic and setting off on a new adventure.

That also means it's his last time exploring a fascinating Chicago building with "What's That Building?" sleuth Dennis Rodkin. So, this week Dennis got the backstory of a building very close to Tony's heart: his childhood home in Oak Park.

How the house got off the ground

It was the firm S.T. Gunderson and Sons that built the Sarabia family home. Norwegian immigrant Severt Gunderson (and sons Seward and George) began building throughout the Chicago area in 1885, including some 600 homes in Oak Park. Some of those homes, including the one Tony grew up in, are now part of the Gunderson Historic District.

Most were designed in the American Foursquare style, a boxy counterpart to the frilly Victorians in the neighborhood. They built 42 models, all slightly different save for five stained-glass windows; a full package of oak floors, trim, and a built-in buffet; six closets; bay windows; and a front porch. The houses sold for $4,000 to $12,000 in those days, but in 1973, a family paid $28,000 for a house on Elmwood Avenue. That family was the Sarabias: Narciso and Alida, and their five kids, including 9-year-old Tony Sarabia.

Tony's life at 604 S. Elmwood Ave.

At first Tony got a small second-floor bedroom, but over the next several years, his domain expanded to the attic and the basement. The family created a big bedroom in the attic for Tony and his brother Eddie. Tony remembers it was extremely cold in the winter and very hot in the summer up there among the rafters.

Tony stands in the attic that was once his bedroom, which he refers to as the "Greg Brady groovy bedroom". (Jason Marck/WBEZ)

Good thing there were pets to keep him company. Over the years, the house was home to gerbils, cats, a chameleon, and a number of dogs, including a husky mix named Brutus, who was Tony’s.

Brutus on the porch in the early 1980s. (Courtesy of Tony Sarabia)

Tony and his friends also colonized the west end of the partially finished basement, hanging up huge posters of Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin, and building a semi-permanent wall out of particle board and two-by-fours to create what they called "the Freak Room." They played a lot of gin rummy in there (which doesn't entirely explain why it's called the Freak Room.)

The Freak Room evidently couldn't contain Tony: He hosted dance parties that took over the whole basement and once, when his parents were out of town, covered the walls of the living room with tinfoil to evoke Andy Warhol's New York loft.

Tony in the dining room in 1978. (Courtesy of Tony Sarabia)
Tony in what was once the Freak Room, today. (Jason Marck/WBEZ)

Tony lived in his parents' attic for several years after graduating from Oak Park and River Forest High School in 1981. He had gotten a taste for radio during high school and completed a six-week course at the Midwestern Broadcasting School in Chicago during the latter half of his senior year. He stayed in the house while he got his career started — more on that here — and moved out when he was 25.

The house today

Forty-five years later, the house is still in the family's hands: In 2003, Tony's parents sold it to his cousin, Nancy (who had lived with them for part of her and Tony's childhood), and her husband, Bernie. 

The living room today. It looked nothing like this during the years Tony lived there. Every piece of wood — the walls, the molding, the window trim — was then painted an aqua blue. Dark purple carpeting covered the floors. (Jason Marck/WBEZ)

They've restored the house, including the original oak woodwork, enlarged the kitchen, and upgraded the basement into a family room/guest suite, leaving no trace of Tony's old Freak Room.

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