Interiors Chicago October 2011 : Page 86

History Class A minimalist finds nirvana in a 19th-century Old Town home. By Lisa Cregan | Photography by Tony Soluri This house is on one of those streets that puts the Olde in Old Town. The historically protected architecture lining its leafy block is irresistibly charming, but it can be a difficult match for modern life. If you’re partial to formal parlors, oak banisters and Victoriana, no problem. But if you’ve got a taste for minimalism like this homeowner does, the neighborhood housing stock can present a bit of a predicament. “I admit I’m OCD in a way,” says the owner, who’s a longtime Old Town resident. “I’ve always liked everything in its place. I don’t like clutter and I regularly purge.” So when this house—a 2,000-square-foot, circa-1870 clapboard cottage—came on the market, he seized the opportunity for that most extreme of purges: gut renovation. Local landmark regulations focus only on maintaining a late-19th-century vibe from the curb; what homeowners choose to do behind their landmarked façades (structurally speaking, of course) is between them and their architects. So, step one: Get a great architect. LIGHT BRIGHT Sunlight pours through the house’s central skylight-adorned atrium and reflects off rift white oak millwork, lending the space a honeyed glow. Minimalism prevails as the stair landing morphs into the kitchen counter. 86 | | Fall 2011

History Class

Lisa Cregan

A minimalist finds nirvana in a 19th-century Old Town home. By Lisa Cregan | Photography by Tony<br /> <br /> This house is on one of those streets that puts the Olde in Old Town. The historically protected architecture lining its leafy block is irresistibly charming, but it can be a difficult match for modern life. If you’re partial to formal parlors, oak banisters and Victoriana, no problem. But if you’ve got a taste for minimalism like this homeowner does, the neighborhood housing stock can present a bit of a predicament.<br /> <br /> “I admit I’m OCD in a way,” says the owner, who’s a longtime Old Town resident. “I’ve always liked everything in its place. I don’t like clutter and I regularly purge.” So when this house—a 2,000-square-foot, circa-1870 clapboard cottage—came on the market, he seized the opportunity for that most extreme of purges: gut renovation.<br /> <br /> Local landmark regulations focus only on maintaining a late-19th-century vibe from the curb; what homeowners choose to do behind their landmarked façades (structurally speaking, of course) is between them and their architects. So, step one: Get a great architect.<br /> <br /> That’s not a particularly difficult task for someone born and raised among the Chicago real estate business like this homeowner, but he says he took time considering his options all the same. A friend who’d recently completed her own renovation was adamant about who he should hire. “She said, ‘I know you’re going to interview all the who’s who in town, but I’ve just gone through this and I’m telling you there’s only one firm for you,’” he recounts. Apparently, some of the “big-name architects” his friend called hadn’t even bothered to respond, but when she tried the equally esteemed architects at Wheeler Kearns, Dan Wheeler answered his own phone and said, “I’ll ride my bike over and take a look.” <br /> <br /> Contrary to the Norman Rockwell visual of an architect on a two-wheeled house call, Wheeler and his firm are responsible for some of today’s most daring and successful examples of modern residential architecture in Chicago. Wheeler and the project’s lead architect, Chris-Annmarie Spencer, presented one option for transforming the space that was particularly welcomed by their minimalist-leaning client—tearing off the 400-square-foot addition that had been tacked on to the back of the house. “I like things simple and small. I’m not married. I don’t have children. I live in a historic district. It seemed natural to go back to the original footprint,” says the homeowner.<br /> <br /> What other Old Town renovation has ever involved removing square footage? But tearing off the ornate 1980s appendage didn’t reduce the size of the upstairs bedrooms by too much, Spencer says, “and it improved the backyard immensely. Plus, it helped us get a lot more light into the house and we were able to transform the interior.” Enormous floor-to-ceiling glass doors now stand in for the first floor’s rear wall and combine with a new skylight-topped central atrium to bathe the home’s interior in natural light. “You used to walk into ‘small and dark’ and now you see straight through the house and out the back,” he marvels. “And when I open those big glass doors, it feels like I’m sitting outside, like the back of the house was lifted off.” <br /> <br /> As dramatic as that expanse of glass is, the homeowner reports “the real jaw dropper” is the minimalist architecture awaiting visitors on the other side of the front façade’s scrolling corbels. “People are shocked,” he laughs. Part of their astonishment is that though the interiors are extremely pared down—take the stair landing that morphs into a kitchen counter, the elegant tube of a banister, or the cabinetry-flush steel fireplace in the living room—this is hardly a cold white box. “The wood grain in the millwork and concrete floors create warmth,” Spencer explains. “If we’d painted all the wood it would have had a completely different feel.” She also concedes that part of the house’s charm is that things aren’t quite as minimal as they appear. “Yes, we used a reduced palette, but we employed lots of layering. Looking toward the stairs from the kitchen you see glass, white oak, painted drywall and steel—all in one glance. This is a small house but very complicated.”<br /> <br /> As might be expected, the place beautifully showcases the homeowner’s large collection of modern art—there are galleries both upstairs and down—and also works with his smattering of antiques. He points to his farm table, his grandfather’s clock and an antique cabinet. “When I lived in my previous home, which was more traditional, you didn’t see my collectibles. In this house they catch your eye.”<br /> <br /> Enormous attention was paid by both the architects and the team at Fraser Construction to get even the smallest details right, from light switch placement to the water pressure in the shower, and this perfectionist homeowner says the final outcome is nirvana. “Outside my house the world is chaotic. Inside it’s organized, symmetrical and calm.” <br /> <br /> The downside, the homeowner says, is that his already high standards have been taken up another notch. He says he recently went to see a movie whose main character lives in a sleek, contemporary home and, during a climactic love scene, he couldn’t focus on anything but the “junky arrangement of light switches” on the wall behind the bed.<br /> <br /> If only the director had asked Dan Wheeler to ride his bike over.<br /> <br /> “Outside my house the world is chaotic. Inside it’s organized, symmetrical and calm,” says the homeowner.

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