The Little House That Could

A professional prop stylist creates an artful mix of things charming, dramatic, and highly idiosyncratic

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Tom Hamilton’s sense of humor extends to his enclosed porch, where petrified wasps’ nests and a bird made of coconuts hang from a rustic wooden shelf. Large-weave rattan furniture strikes an outdoorsy note. Photo Gallery »
 

Tom Hamilton’s Edgewater home is one of those houses you drive by, do a double take, and back up to see again. It’s like something out of a child’s storybook—the modest farmhouse that kept to itself while a big city grew up around it. “People love to tell me how ‘out of place’ my little house is,” says Hamilton of the way his cozy 1890s cottage sits sandwiched between two bland brick 1920s three-flats.

As gaslight-era relics go, his house has been unusually lucky. Hamilton bought the place when he was just 21, and through 20 years of ownership he has never considered a massive overhaul. Quirks like the rickety, off-kilter stairs make him happy. “It would take so much away from the character of the house to take them out,” he says.

The unsightly siding he inherited was another matter. “It was gray roofing shingles,” Hamilton recalls. “One day I was curious to see what was underneath, so I tore them off and opened a whole can of worms.” That was eight years ago, and what he discovered underneath the shingles was a lost world of architectural detail. “Then,” he says, “I couldn’t turn back.”


In the kitchen, Hamilton displays vintage copper pans and molds above antique soda-water bottles he collected in Argentina. Photo Gallery »

With its original façade restored, the house looks impossibly charming sitting behind a postage-stamp garden and tiny patch of lawn. Its vibrant red door (chosen to stand out) opens onto an interior almost as surprising as the exterior. Hamilton isn’t just another impassioned neighborhood preservationist; he’s a professional freelance prop stylist who has staged photo shoots for clients as diverse as Kraft, The Pampered Chef, and the Art Smith–authored Back to the Family publisher. Working out of Chicago, Hamilton drew the attention of the talent scouts at Harpo Productions, who recruited him for what turned out to be an eight-year freelancing gig staging the Oprah Winfrey Show.

Peering around this beguiling rabbit warren of a house that Hamilton shares with his partner, Juan Palomino, you see a perfectly orchestrated mélange of the beautiful, the unusual, and the downright odd. There’s nothing off-the-shelf precious about this place; the statements it makes are deeply personal. “I’m a somewhat reserved person,” admits Hamilton. “My house says so much more about me than I could ever reveal with words.”

The first thing it reveals is that Hamilton has been an on-again, off-again antiques dealer since he was 16 years old. “In college, other kids were going to keggers; I went antiquing,” he says. In fact, he was still in college when he found the massive Empire sofa that greets visitors in what he calls his “Greek neoclassical foyer.” Today it’s upholstered in a modern graphic print, but at one point this elegant sofa actually lived in student housing (“I was trying to create beauty even back then”).

Beauty, as defined by this stylist, is rarely conventional. Take the vibrant botanical prints dominating one wall of his eat-in kitchen. Not your everyday pretty florals, these highlight plant cell structure and photosynthesis. Hamilton bought 300 of them from a South Side flea-market vendor who was liquidating outdated teaching aides from a high-school science lab in Joliet. Hamilton promptly resold 40 of them to shopkeeper Larry Vodak, of Andersonville’s Scout, and set the rest aside for himself.

“They have so much impact grouped together like this,” says Hamilton, who paired the arrangement with a pendant light fashioned from an old gas-pump crown found on his grandfather’s Wisconsin farm. “Certain things just speak to me—I couldn’t begin to tell you why,” he says with a shrug.

 

Photography: Alan Shortall
Styling: Tom Hamilton

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