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Photography Nathan Kirkman
Styling Susan Victoria
Whatever. He sees a lot of houses and he’s picky. “It’s rare that something excites me,” he says. “I know exactly what I like in an entry, in a staircase, in the kitchen.”
When he and his partner, Jon Pizer, were planning renovations on the Lake View house they bought in 2002, a shingled, 8,500-square-foot behemoth with a gambrel roof and a base of huge red sandstone boulders, “we were able to draw on every single house I’ve seen.”
Designed by renowned architect George W. Maher and built in 1894, their three-story house is a vestige of another time, when high-density residential buildings didn’t yet fill the neighborhood and east-west streets ended at the beach, not at Lake Shore Drive. Today the house is an anomaly on a street tightly packed with apartment buildings and townhouses.
Lippitz and Pizer, who owns a company that sells supermarket equipment, had been living across the street in one of those townhouses when the big old house became available. Though they’d never considered living in such a place (“our taste tends to be more contemporary,” Lippitz says), they jumped at the chance to buy it.
Its roominess was alluring. The house sits on an extra-deep, extra-wide lot and has a garage, driveway, and back yard, all rare in this part of the city. Inside, there was nothing but space-at least in their minds’ eyes. In actuality, the house was a hodgepodge of smallish rooms, its interior vistas blocked by walls and doors that had been added over the years. In the 1930s, the house had been divided into three apartments, one per floor, with a kitchen in each and an enclosed exterior staircase clumsily tacked onto the rear of the building.
The sellers had used it as a single-family house but had never undone its quirky modifications, which included rearranged walls, opportunistic additions, and the removal of the grand staircase from the foyer. A few original decorative elements remained intact-a handsome mahogany door and a mosaic floor in the entryway, a tile-faced fireplace in the living room, a beautiful oval leaded-glass window on the west wall-but most were gone.
The new owners admired the bones of the house and saw, Lippitz says, “that this was a house we could turn into something very special, somewhere we could raise a family.” (They have two young sons.)
The renovations, originally planned as a “modest job,” Pizer recalls, turned into an 18-month-long gut-rehab marathon involving complete rewiring, new plumbing, all new windows and shingling, a new roof, new walls and floors everywhere, a new kitchen, new bathrooms, installation of multiple heating and cooling systems, and removal of the exterior staircase.
On the first floor, the warren of small rooms was replaced with an open plan of large spaces that flow into each other. While never intended as a restoration, the new layout is similar to Maher’s arrangement, says Lippitz, who has a copy of the original plans for the house. Working with Gary Beyerl and Steven Jones of the architectural firm Burns & Beyerl, the new owners created a home that’s both grand and intimate, sophisticated and entirely comfortable.
An elegant living room now opens onto a formal dining room, where Lippitz and Pizer frequently stage dinner parties. A striking steel-topped table easily seats ten people; side-by-side buffets were created by separating a tall tansu chest into two pieces.
A spacious modern kitchen-its crystal chandeliers salvaged from elsewhere in the house-has counter seating along an island with a sink and two dishwashers built into it. There’s also a table for casual sit-down meals and a family-room area where the children can play or watch TV while meals are being prepared.
The back of the house was dramatically altered to permit the building of a deck, accessible through glass doors that span the width of the kitchen/family room. Boulders removed from the back wall became part of the foundation for the deck, which overlooks a child-friendly yard.
Inside, the third-story floor had to be removed and rebuilt with new support beams to correct structural problems. On the first floor, hardwood flooring was saved and relaid over new subflooring, then refinished for a seamless match with new floorboards.
A focal point on the first floor is an innovative staircase with broad landings and a graceful railing. The strong lines of its dark wood trim draw the eye upward to an oval leaded-glass window similar to a round one on the lower landing.
The round window was one of the exciting surprises that surfaced during the renovation. Long ago boarded up on the outside of the house and walled over on the inside, it was presumed lost, though an 1890s Inland Architect story about the house showed, tantalizingly, where it had been.
“Everyone who knew anything about old houses assured us that the window definitely would have been taken out before they walled over it,” Pizer recalls. “But I said, ‘You know what? Just for kicks, just for my satisfaction, could you dig a tiny hole and see if there’s a window in there?’ And lo and behold, there was the window.”
Tucked below the staircase is one of the house’s seven bathrooms and powder rooms, each with its own distinctive look. This one uses an original window frame in an exposed brick wall to hold a mirror over the vanity. In another, a sandstone pillar that once was part of a porch is visible as a boulder wall behind the sink.
The house is full of such surprises-distinctly modern light fixtures where you might expect to see something traditional and vice versa. On the second floor, a cozy master suite-bedroom, sitting room, lavishly appointed bath-is like a private apartment inside the massive house. “It’s our pad,” Lippitz says.
One son’s bedroom, lacking a closet, has an armoire set into a wall; the back of it juts into the wide hallway outside the room. An upstairs bathroom holds, of all things, enameled metal cabinets (complete with bottles of fluoride and old tools) that once belonged to Lippitz’s grandfather, a dentist.
The overall effect is of new coexisting intriguingly with old, of individual tastes expressed with verve and imagination, of a house that, for all its magnificence and state-of-the-art accouterments, is meant to be lived in and comfortably enjoyed.
“When you see renovations, you can always tell the ones that were done five years ago, ten years ago,” Lippitz says. “We wanted something that would last, and not be of a certain time period or style. We wanted it to be eternal.”