Contemplating the beginnings of the modern home he created in Wicker Park, architect Dan Wheeler of Wheeler Kearns Architects says, "I think it's fair to say the site was a rare find."
When he and fellow architect Calli Verkamp started the project, the property was a nearly empty double lot with a small carriage house sitting toward the back property line. It was an uncommon situation on this Wicker Park street, in an area that's designated an Historic Landmark District and lined with formidable brick and limestone homes.
Although no one knows for sure, the architects believe the original building probably dates to the 1880s. Wheeler believes that, due to way it was built and laid out, it was used to stable horses in its early years—but more recent residents were of the two-legged variety. "When we first saw it, there was living space on the second floor," he says.
How the site situation came to be is a mystery whose answer has been lost to time. "At some point, it must have belonged to a larger house, but during construction we found no rubble or infill that would suggest that. We just don't know how it came to be standing by itself on a large lot,” Wheeler says.
Despite the size of the land, building a new house among dozens of historic homes is undeniably tricky. "The city rules about this kind of neighborhood are very prescriptive," Wheeler says. "Any project is subject to community comment and requires approval by Chicago’s Landmark Commission. A new building in this district is even more highly scrutinized."
In response, the architects developed a handsome home that has the DNA of the area, but a modern heart. "We wanted the new home to contribute to the neighborhood, and our desire was to preserve the street experience for residents and passersby, but reinterpret it in a contemporary way," says Verkamp.
From the outside, at first glance, you see a brick home with black trim that's handsome but doesn't loudly differentiate itself from its neighboring structures.
But look more closely, and the modern, metal cornice that runs along the roofline and is pierced by holes and vertical slices was clearly born in the 21st century. The brick is also slightly different from the neighbors. "Most of the structures in this district (including the carriage house), are primarily erected with Chicago Common brick, a utilitarian kind of masonry,” says Wheeler. “We elected to use a Roman-scaled brick throughout the new structure, which is clearly familiar but more refined and architectural."
Inside, you find a home whose rear facade is lined with glass, in order to embrace the back garden. It’s glass that ties the new home to the past. "It was important to the city’s Landmark Department that we preserve the existing carriage house, though we needed to connect to it,” Wheeler says.
Architects made that connection with a glass corridor that bridges the structures. Wheeler describes it as: “An all-glass link that lightly touches and connects the old and new buildings.” And thus, for the first time in memory, the little carriage house no longer stands alone.
The interior of the new building feels far away from the 1800s, as it's decidedly modern. A perforated metal screen in the entry provides what the architects describe as “a veil between the entry and the combined living and dining room at the front of the house.”
A large, open space behind the veil serves the needs of the people who live there. "The clients are involved in a number of organizations in Chicago," Wheeler says. "They needed a large space where they could hold gatherings—formal at the front of the house, more informal as you move to the rear. And, of course, it made sense to optimize views to a garden like this."
A space designed for philanthropic gatherings may sound as charming as a rental hall, but make no mistake, the first floor of the home is also created for the family. One wall is lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves; the opposite wall holds the kitchen with a long island that can accommodate the family; and the central dining room with its art-like table is anything but stuffy.
The floors are epoxy terrazzo, the better to accommodate the wet boots and shoes that accompany the Windy City's inclement weather. The hard surfaces could make for an echo chamber, but the architects had a great idea. "Knowing that the first floor would be used for large gatherings, we used a special sound-absorbing plaster on the ceiling,” says Wheeler. “It may be the best investment we argued for, because it works wonderfully”
The ceiling uses modern technology, but it has something in common with many old homes: It's is completely smooth, and unpierced by can lights. "Our clients have a thing about ceiling lights, they just don't like them," says Verkamp. "We created cove lighting around the perimeters of most of the rooms, and used a strategic pendant light here and there."
Color and art infuse the space with personality. "The clients have a wonderful sense of style and humor, and both and enjoy flashes of color," says Wheeler. "Through the glass doors, you can see a bright green color on the outdoor fireplace—and it's so them."
Of course, this kind of outdoor connection in an area marked by lake effect snow could also fall in the uncommon category. "You never know about Chicago weather—last year it didn't snow at all," says Wheeler. "But, no matter what the weather, the glass walls give the home a sense of breadth and space—and you have the perception that the garden is simply part of the room, and exterior lighting accentuates this in the evening."
In the carriage house, a hanging, rotating Fireorb keeps the second floor cozy. This is the family room, and it's outfitted with a rubber tile floor. To protect the surface from the heat, the architects installed a metal square with an uplight underneath the firebox. "When the light comes on, it makes it look like a piece of sculpture," says Verkamp.
The architects value that juxtaposition—utilitarian and artistic, old and new, public and private, indoor and out. "We try to invest a sense of contrast in our work, and make it a story in the house," says Wheeler. "It's what we appreciate about architecture." It's a deft balance that's rare indeed.