The Italianate Job

A graceful rehab turns a Lincoln Park fixer-upper into a real charmer—light, bright, and molto bella

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Photography Nathan Kirkman
Styling Arden Nelson

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When Gaile Leahy first saw her now-beloved Lincoln Park home in 1994, she wasn’t impressed. She and her husband, Tom, were looking for a Victorian house to buy, but a series of bad renovations had left this one looking sad. “It was the ugliest house I’d ever seen,” she says.

“It was a true Victorian, so all the rooms were very small,” says Tom. “There was no light in the middle of the house. Gaile walked in and said, ‘It’s too dark! It’s too dark!’”

About 50 houses later, they realized that the three-story Victorian Italianate fixer-upper was the only house they’d seen that would do. Tom and their daughter Taylor, then six, loved the wide, deep yard on a lot and a half, perfect for the dog they planned to get. And nothing compared architecturally.

The home’s exterior, with its tall arched windows and distinctive brackets under the eaves, is typical of the Victorian Italianate style, in which the ornate elements of Italian architecture were filtered through a refined English sensibility. The stucco-over-brick building may even have survived the Great Chicago Fire in 1871; several others on the street did, and the house and its stables are shown on a city plat from 1872. The house retained distinctive original elements-a stained glass window in the entryway, an elaborate fireplace surround, and a huge oak archway between the living room and dining room.

The leahys’ first project was to find a way to bring light into the middle of the house. Enter architect Paul Janicki, who removed a small bedroom to open up the front living room, designed an elliptical staircase with an oval skylight to brighten the second floor, and created an addition in the rear that allowed in light and extended the house ten feet back into the lot. He also restructured the house to put the main entrance and public spaces on the second floor, as they would have been in Victorian times, when the first floor was level with the dirt street. The first floor now contains a large family room, Gaile’s office, storage areas, and the kitchen.

The Leahys collaborated with three local interior designers to finish the house. Nora Marra worked on the original restoration, and Jill DeVaney and Maida Korte worked on subsequent updates.

The tall windows with arched cornices at the front of the house are the focal points of the living room. Korte researched Victorian window treatments and came up with a solution that emphasizes the windows’ height, shows off the arches, and exposes as much glass as possible. The custom-made golden silk satin curtains reflect light beautifully, billowing full and wide as they reach the floor. A tailored valance repeats the arch of the cornice; large hand-tied decorative tassels embellish without cluttering the look. The windows still have their original shutters, which fold into the window jambs.

The Leahys found the massive armoire that anchors their living room at an antique store near Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. The tropical wood and a carved tulip motif suggest a Dutch East Indies origin. It’s deep enough to hold much of their silver collection-including a punch bowl from the Edgewater Beach Hotel and several coffee and wine servers-and still have room for rows of hardcover books in the back. The curved Savonarola chairs that flank it came from the same antique store, and perhaps the same East Indian estate.

Janicki’s curved staircase is an elegant improvement over what was there when the Leahys purchased the house -a straight, front-to-back staircase hidden by a wall. The new one hugs a family treasure-a marble sculpture of Marguerite from the opera Faust. Carved by a Florentine artist in the 19th century, the piece was a wedding gift to Gaile’s parents.

An oil painting of a canal scene by 20th-century Chinese master artist Chen Yifei, a highlight of the couple’s art collection, hangs partway up the stairs. Most of the Leahys’ paintings, many of which they purchased at auctions, are late 19th- and early 20th-century European works. Also on display throughout the house are antique travel and advertising posters from the Russell Colletti Gallery in Chicago, Swann Gallery Auctions in New York, and Parisian flea markets.

Almost all of the furniture in the house came from Gaile and Tom’s families. The dining table belonged to Tom’s mother, who bought many pieces of furniture at estate sales in Lake Forest in the 1930s and ’40s. “She was embarrassed to tell me that,” says Gaile, “but I think it’s great. This is wonderful antique furniture.”

The dining room is lit by a brilliant Strass crystal chandelier from King’s Chandelier in Eden, North Carolina-the oldest chandelier maker in the country.

In victorian times, kitchens were the domain of housekeepers and maids, and the difficult work done there was kept out of sight of the home’s owners. The kitchen in the Leahy house, on the other hand, is the center of family life. It is part of the new construction at the rear of the house, which incorporates modern technologies and conveniences while respecting the intent of the original architect, something that was important to Janicki. He and Marra designed the kitchen so that the inset white cabinets recall the design of Victorian kitchens; stained glass windows and the marble mantel on a cozy fireplace echo elements in the front of the house. The tile above the wine refrigerator contains a visual joke: one of the large tiles that Korte selected depicts Bacchus, the god of wine.

The exterior of the house was restuccoed and repainted in almost the same shade of yellow that it had been when the Leahys bought it. “It wanted to be yellow,” Gaile says. “We put different colors up in the front to see how we liked them, and then neighbors would come by with their vote.” The Leahys incorporated as much of the original wrought iron as possible in the restoration of the fences. On the parkway between the sidewalk and the street is a charming dog maze, a calf-high version of the hedge mazes of formal English gardens.

The back garden is a lovely formal space landscaped with English oaks and rose bushes. Two fountains set against the back of the garage (reconstructed to look like a small palazzo), are a touch of old Chicago-water issues from the mouths of two stone lions that originally graced the Harris Bank building downtown. Tom designed the granite mosaic terrace himself, modeling it after the Roman Piazza del Campidoglio by Michelangelo.

The Italian influence of the home’s design is so thoroughly respected in its restoration and decoration that one has to ask the couple if they spend a lot of time in Italy. Tom’s answer?

“Not enough.”

 

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