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An Old Albany Park Two-Flat Gets a Colorful Refresh

Out with the old linoleum and wood paneling and in with the fresh paint and tile

Photos: Barry Brecheisen

When Katherine and Jem bought their brick Albany Park two-flat in 2013, the home was retro-looking, but not necessarily in a good way. The units were clad with cheap wood paneling, linoleum, and well-worn fixtures. The couple saw potential in the building however and leaped at the chance to purchase it. Fast forward a few years and the couple have done some extensive remodeling to both units. They've got the kitchen and bathroom they always wanted, and then some. There's also one other very big change in their household since purchasing the home — the couple now have a 17-months-old son. However, in updating their building, Katherine and Jem have stumbled upon some interesting architectural details that were covered under layers of tile, grime, and wood paneling. We stopped by to take a look through their apartment, as well as their photos of the house right after purchasing and during the remodeling process.

Who lives here?

Me, my husband Jem, our 17-month-old son, our two cats and old dog.

How long have you lived here?

We bought the place in September of 2013, so about two and a half years.

Was there anything in particular you were looking for when you were searching?

We wanted to buy a two- or three-flat, to have a rental unit or two in addition to our living space. We've lived all over the city (including Albany Park) in previous rentals, so we were fairly open to neighborhoods, but we found that the buildings we could afford in some areas were mostly frame buildings with cramped living spaces. We came up to Albany Park and walked into this place and, even though the interior was covered in wood paneling and linoleum, the building felt solid, the original woodwork was still intact, and the rooms were spacious. It took us about 12 hours to decide that — yes! — we're moving back to Albany Park. And we're 200 steps from the Brown Line, which is awesome.

What has changed in the building since you purchased the it?

We renovated the bathrooms and kitchens in both units, pulled out carpet and vinyl flooring to get back to the original maple hardwood flooring, tore out wood paneling and added drywall, refinished the original woodwork (my dad did that and we still need to finish our dining room), and painted everything, including the closets in our kid's room and the massive room divider. We also added in-unit washer and dryer to both units. Most recently we added tongue and groove beadboard panels as a ceiling on our back porch and painted the walls and floors back there to convert it from a torture dungeon to a cheery mudroom.

Did you find any surprises when updating the building?

We found newspaper stuck in the wall dated from 1908, the year the building was built. We also tore out some vinyl tile in one of the kitchens and found a nest of calcified roaches that looked like they had all congregated in this one spot and died. The maple flooring was also a surprise. We pulled off the tile and thought we hit sub floor but our broker took out a hammer and was like, "There's more under here!" Also the nook in our dining room, with the arch, was covered in wood paneling, so it was cool to uncover that architectural detail. The big surprise was when I found out I was pregnant halfway through the renovation!

How would you describe your style?

Scandinavian modern, 1979? I think I'm subconsciously trying to recreate the homes some of my friends' parents or European relatives that I grew up around, people who shopped at Crate & Barrel in the early 1980s, when it was still a place that brought well-made and beautifully-designed housewares and furniture over from Europe for Americans who appreciated that stuff. There was a store in Boston called Design Research (D/R), that did the same thing — I love that aesthetic. My friends have described my style as "stuff that looks like it's from Ikea, but isn't actually from Ikea." (Though we have lots of Ikea, too.) I love mixing clean lines with textiles and folk art, and I stole that idea from Saarinen's Miller House in Columbus, Indiana.

You were the founder and original operator of the Vintage Bazaar. Is there anything in your house that came from your time operating the bazaar?

Lots of stuff. In particular the glass and chrome globe lamp on top of the Expedit bookshelf — that's probably my favorite purchase because you can't find lighting like that today (for under $500!). I got it from Manly Vintage when we did a storefront pop-up in Logan Square in 2010. I always bought unique lighting from our vendors or anything Kartell or Heller. If I saw plastic housewares in someone's booth I snapped them up. Nothing like Eurpoean plasticware from the 1970s!

I also used to sell vintage, so most of our stuff comes from years of shopping thrift stores and estate sales.

What thing do you like the most about your house?

Even though it was a massive undertaking, I love that we got to re-do the kitchen and bathroom the way we wanted to. For the first time since we've lived in Chicago we weren't living in "funk of 40,000 years" vintage charm or with some faux Colonial early-2000s Home Depot bathroom vanity. It's also nice to have a basement where we can work on projects. Jem made the orange bench in our back porch mudroom because we can actually use and store power tools! The third half bedroom is also nice — I get to have an office, which is great, because I freelance and work from home.

What thing do you like the least about it?

We have lots of unfinished projects. We have furniture we'd like to reupholster, like the gold vinyl waiting two-seater in our living room, and areas that needs repainting, like our hallway, but we also need to fix some plumbing and the back yard needs to be landscaped so it feels more like a place to hang out and less like a place to escape from (or Carcosa, as Jem likes to call it). We have to prioritize the things that improve the value of the building so it means some aesthetic stuff takes a back seat.

What's your favorite thing about living in Albany Park?

It's ethnically diverse, which makes it a great place to raise a kid. The food scene here is unparalleled; this is the land of ethnic grocery stores, cheap but amazing restaurants and awesome street vendors. The Albany Park Neighbors group is also good at creating community. They've been doing a street festival called World Fest for the past 2 years and it's getting bigger every year.

·House Calls archives [Curbed Chicago]