clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘We weren’t interested in hiding the L—we live in the city and that’s part of it’

The L is 75 feet from the backdoor, and the architect saw it as an opportunity

For some people, the rattle and hum of Chicago’s L train might be annoying, but for the owner of this home on the Southport Corridor, it’s a long familiar sound.

The house sits a mere 75 feet from the elevated tracks, close enough to make out the next stop as its announced over the train’s intercom. “You have to understand, I grew up in Chicago, and my parents’ house—which they still live in—is just eight feet from the L,” he says.

For any one else familiar with the Windy City, the front facade might also look like home. It’s one of the many 19th-century brick two-flats that line neighborhood streets.

A large, two-story brick home has it’s original look. There’s a peek at the new addition on the back.
From the outside, the house looks much as it always has, preserving the unified look of the homes on the street.
A wood staircase has no risers, allowing light to fill the space and views of the floors below to be visible. A black I beam stretches across the stairs.
The team from Vladimir Radutny Architects designed the staircase without risers in order to let light fill the rooms below.

While many people might have looked at the dwelling and seen the typical, this couple saw possibility for something beyond that. “Most Chicago buildings are just 19 feet wide,” says one of the owners. “This one is 22 feet wide. That’s just a little wider, but it makes a huge difference. The house feels like it has breathing room.”

The couple, a developer and an arts professional, hired architect Vladimir Radutny to transform the two-flat building into a single family home that’s anything but expected.

The homeowners studied architecture at The Cooper Union in New York (where they met) and are committed minimalists who desired a modern house. That said, they decided to leave the traditional brick front facade intact.

“The street is extremely consistent, and the brick homes along it are nearly identical. We wanted to keep the architectural integrity of the street and not disrupt its fabric,” the homeowner says. “But inside, we knew we wanted it to be a minimal white box.”

The staircase railing is smooth, white wall. rustic orange-red brick is exposed in the entry.
The architect designed the stair rail as a smooth plane for a minimal look. To the right, a portion of the home’s brick wall is exposed. To the left, brick from the neighboring buildings is visible.

According to the architect, the interior was far from that vision when he first visited the project. “For one thing, it was a multifamily home,” Radutny says. “And it was 100 years old, so it had the wallpaper, trim, and fixtures you might expect—and a basement with a dirt floor. Everything was worn, and the floors were sloping.”

The architect’s task was to knit three levels together, and make one home from two (the basement level became an in-law unit). “Where they were divided before, we now wanted them to be connected,” Radutny says.

Shelves hold rows of vintage steam irons.
Shelves were created for a remarkable display of commercial steam irons. “It’s my father’s collection,” the owner says. “He was a professor of industrial design, and he used these to show the relationship between style and industrial objects.”
A large, black support beam is visible across the top of the stairs.
During construction, the owner decided to leave the steel I beam visible.

The architect’s uniting move is a central staircase that runs from the first floor to the third, is topped by a skylight, and has no risers. “The ceiling heights are a typical nine feet—but because the stair soars, it feels grand,” says Radutny. “It’s a bit of a Frank Lloyd Wright reference, where he would have a compression of space and then a release.”

The staircase now acts like a light tunnel, flooding each story with sunlight. “There’s a serene quality to the house,” says the owner. “It has a nice feeling of light and air—it’s like an atrium.”

A wall has skinny, black metal shelves and wall-hung cabinets. A glass coffee table with wheels is in the foreground.
Thin metal shelves were custom designed for a minimal look. The Tavola Con Ruote coffee table is by Gae Aulenti.

The interior walls and features are austere—even the staircase railing reads as a smooth plane from the side view. According to the architect, this keeps the space articulated and organized.

However, windows frame more textured urban views, including walls of rustic brick and, most notably, the L train. That industrial edge visible through the oversized glass panes expresses itself inside with an exposed brick wall in the entry. “It’s one of the ways we tied the inside to the outside,” says the architect.

The family includes children, and it begs the question: How do minimalism and kids co-exist? “We could have certainly put traditional elements in this house,” says the owner.

“But, for me, this is a rhetorical question, because I know kids and minimalism can live together. My father was a professor of industrial design, and I grew up in an austere white environment. It was a positive experience that shaped my adult aesthetic vision.”

An antique treadle sewing machine sits in the hallway.
A treadle sewing machine once belonged to the owner’s grandmother.
A small, rustic wooden chair sits in the master bedroom.
In the master bedroom, a small chair crafted by the owner’s grandfather for her mother takes on a sculptural quality.

The minimal face behind a classic mask is something of a surprise, but there’s another unexpected twist toward the back of the house. In many situations where a house has what some would consider an undesirable neighbor, the architectural “fix” is to turn the dwelling’s back to it. But instead of hiding the nearby train with walls, screens, or obscured glass, the architect designed it to embrace and celebrate the rapid transit system.

“We weren’t interested in hiding the train, we live in the city and that’s part of it,” says the homeowner. “We were more interested in creating a great house, and if you see the train tracks, so be it.”

Radutny responded by treating the condition as an opportunity, not a challenge. “It’s a unique element of the house,” he says.

The kitchen is sleek and white, with no visible hardware or appliances. Through the windows, you see rustic brick and a garage with mulit-colored siding.
City scenes—including the L train and the garage with multi-colored siding—are visible through the new, larger windows.
A white desk and chair are positioned in front of a window. Through the window, you can see a train whizzing by.
From the desk, the L is a blur as it rushes by. The architect selected long windows to mimic the movement of the train.
Brett Bulthuis
The back of the house is modern, with a boxy form and long, horizontal windows.
The front facade is original, the back exterior is completely modern. The architects paid a lot of attention to the rear of the house, as it is so visible from passing L trains.

He designed large windows at the back of the house, particularly in the kitchen. In the bedrooms (located on the second level) and the office (located in the uppermost level), the horizontal windows not only flood the space with light, but also seem to frame views of the train as it goes by. Editing the views makes the passing train appear as something like a video art installation.

While the front of the house is classic, the back of the house is modern, and it’s clad in a narrow shiplap siding made from cutting down standard planks of fiber-cement board from James Hardie.

“It makes the striations much tighter, and gives it more of a texture and depth when the southern sun rays rake across the facade,” Radutny says. “Traditionally, in old houses, no attention was given to the back. But in this case, since it is visible from the train, as many people see the back as the front. We wanted it to look good.”

Another attractive element in the backyard is the garage, which is clad in more fiber-cement panels. “These were left over from another construction project, and the owners always intended to paint them, so the contractors nailed them up in a completely random pattern,” says Radutny. “To everyone’s surprise, the resulting pattern of multi-colored boards was so interesting, the owners decided not to paint it. It became like a tapestry that mimics the movement of the train.

For all the artistic celebration of the city environment, surely everyone who visits must have the same question: Does the sound of the train bother the family? In other words, does familiarity with the L breed contempt?

“To be honest, none of us hear it anymore,” the owner says with a chuckle. “We got the great family house we wanted, and it’s a non-issue.”

Fanny Hothan, an associate architect Vladimir Radutny, also worked on this project. The DiCosola Group completed construction. Cabinetry in the kitchen and bathroom is by Archisesto.

House Calls | From Curbed

A Rhode Island farmhouse that’s beachy without being ‘overly nautical’

House Calls | From Curbed

A Back Bay brownstone that’s “highly, yet invisibly” functional

House Calls | From Curbed

Bringing pattern and color to a ‘simple box’ of a home in upstate New York

View all stories in House Calls