Almost immediately after Sarah and Jeff Klymson bought a small loft in Chicago’s South Loop in 2007, they began making plans to fulfill their grander vision of home.
Jeff, founding principal of architecture and design practice Collective Office, and Sarah, an architect and interior designer who works in the hospitality industry, dreamt of finding a freestanding building with a little outdoor space, something they could design themselves, grow into and that could serve as a base for Jeff’s firm. Though it was a tall order for the South Loop, it wasn’t impossible.
The two years the couple had planned on staying in the loft ballooned to seven, punctuated by regular hunts for available buildings in the neighborhood. Jeff says he would, on Sunday afternoons, open a real estate app and click on every listing around their then-home. Then, in the fall of 2014, seemingly out of nowhere, he happened upon a former factory, circa 1889, just three blocks away.
“We grabbed our dog, went over, and walked around it,” Jeff says. “The building was essentially condemned—it was completely boarded up. All the windows had been bricked up on the first floor. The front of the building was totally different than the way we have it now.” (They found out later that the building also lacked electricity, gas, and water.)
Jeff called the realtor, who informed the couple that she could get them into the property by Friday. But there was a caveat: They had to submit an offer that day, because the seller was selecting a buyer on Saturday. And there were already two bids on the building, including one offer that was all-cash.
“We thought, ‘well, if we’re going to do it, this might be the only chance we get to do something like this, this close to the city,’” Jeff says.
So, they submitted an offer, deciding to dive headfirst into bringing their dream home to life. Though from the outside the building looked like a massive undertaking—and in many ways it was—they knew that its walls and foundation were solid and that it didn’t have any major structural flaws.
But the renovation process, which took about 18 months, wasn’t without its obstacles. “There was a boat motor on the second floor that still had its propeller,” Jeff explains. “There was a forklift on the main floor that was basically decomposing and a 12-foot-tall cement mixer on the main floor.” They had to remove 24 dump trucks worth of trash to clear the space.
And while they kept the building’s walls and most of its upper roof, they replaced a good portion of the rest to make way for stairway reconfigurations and restructuring and to add a courtyard on the second floor.
It was always a part of the couple’s plan to build a storefront into the first floor of the building—whether to house Jeff’s practice, as it does now, or, perhaps, a gallery or shop. (“It’s the world’s shortest commute,” jokes Jeff.)
The couple’s second-floor residence measures 2,600 square feet; they also make use of the main floor, including a two-car garage.
As the couple began to renovate, they became more curious about the former factory’s history (they are only the third owners of the structure), which led to a search to find out what the building’s original facade looked like.
“One of the biggest things we debated was how to deal with the front facade,” Sarah says. So the couple went digging at the Chicago History Museum for archival photographs of the building. Unfortunately, nothing turned up, but what they did find felt somewhat like fate: a historic record of building permits revealed their building’s own filing date was May 20, 1889. “May 20th is my birthday!” Sarah explains, laughing.
As for the interiors, Sarah says that the couple “designed [the] home to support the way we live.” They love to entertain and to gather in the courtyard they carved out of the second floor.
“We definitely wanted an outdoor space and to feel like it was part of our living space,” explains Sarah. Jeff adds that they ended up using a hospitality-grade sliding door system, with doors that are 12 feet wide and 10 feet tall. The doors, to Jeff and Sarah’s delight, aligned with the 7.5-foot-tall windows in the rest of the residence.
“We can open the center sections facing the living room so [that] it just becomes one sort of indoor and outdoor living space,” says Jeff.
The couple maximized interior ceiling heights, minimized the number of doors in the home, and created storage spaces that weren’t cramped or intrusive. The interior walls, which are painted with Benjamin Moore Chantilly Lace, were kept neutral to let the couple’s furniture take center stage. Their media room feels like one big piece of furniture itself, thanks to the massive, mustard-colored Milo Baughman sectional sofa that holds court there.
The couple wanted their guest bedroom to feel like a suite; they tucked it into the front of the building for added privacy (the family’s bedrooms are all at the back of the building). Bedrooms were outfitted with custom millwork instead of traditional closets so that there would be no wasted space.
In the kitchen, the Klymsons decided to buck the open-plan trend: After years of loft living, they decided to create a partially enclosed kitchen. Here, they added statement millwork in white oak covered with a dark stain and built a wet bar of natural marble, outfitted with a Waterworks faucet in natural brass. “All of our stuff is in cabinets so that the countertop can be more like a welcoming landing spot,” says Jeff.
None of these decisions came easily, though. “We drew this place a million times,” Sarah explains. “Like, ‘what about this option? What about this option?’ You know, going back and forth—being architects.”