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Past, Perfected


With its tapered, dark-shingled side walls and gabled roof, the new porch blends beautifully with the architecture of the stucco-and-brick house, built in 1911. To wire the Arts and Crafts–style light alongside the path, a hole was drilled through the limestone boulder.  Photo Gallery:::

Photographer Matthew Gilson and his wife, Holly, loved living in their 1909 Logan Square storefront, which comprised an apartment and his studio. But in 2004, the couple, who by then had one child and another on the way, decided to move to the suburbs before they outgrew the place. Matt (who often shoots for this magazine) jokes that they leapt into the future by buying a 1911 stucco-and-brick house, but they also were returning to his past: Their new digs are in Wilmette, just a few blocks from Matt’s parents, who still live in the home where he grew up.
 


A “cove of necessity” was created around the living room windows when new load-bearing beams were added to the front of the house; an oak bench with recessed shelves at both ends puts the niche to good use.  Photo Gallery:::

“We knew right away this was it,” recalls Holly, a corporate communications director. “So many of the older houses had been remodeled many times, and a lot of the character had been remodeled out of them. Luckily for us, the owners had done a really great job of keeping all the elements about an older house that we wanted.”

But they also wanted some changes. The most dramatic transformation would take place out front, where a concrete walkway led to concrete slab steps with no railings and a nothing-special front entrance. “We wanted to make the house look a little bit more settled in its place, like it had always been this way,” Holly explains. “It just needed a more formal entryway.”

The Gilsons worked with architect Robert Nevel, who designed the entrance as a miniature version of the house. The porch’s dark base echoes the brick first floor and supports an articulated frame of timbers that match the beams in the second-floor stucco; atop this is a gabled roof that mirrors the slope of the main roof. Gabled roofs are typical of Craftsman-style houses (an aesthetic the Gilsons love), as is the tapered form of the porch’s side walls.

Stained cedar shingles and a limestone slab that serves as the bottom step play to the movement’s emphasis on rustic materials. And the concrete-bowl planters on limestone set atop the side walls are similar to those at the Oak Park home and studio of Frank Lloyd Wright.

The couple has made several trips to Sweden, where Holly’s mother’s family is from; they sought to replicate that country’s alpine landscape in their own yard, albeit on a much smaller scale. Matthew trekked to a dwarf-conifer nursery in Woodstock to handpick the Chinese hemlock and spruce that, along with small boulders, flank the front walkway, now a path of natural-cut, hand-laid limestone pavers.


Landscape oil paintings—some by name artists, others by rank amateurs—hang over the fireplace and elsewhere in the master bedroom.  Photo Gallery:::

“We wanted to make it look like the glacier had rolled into Wilmette and stopped in our front yard,” Holly says. They like the whimsical feeling created by the curviness of the path, Matt says, adding, “You don’t want your front walk to be ceremonial. You want to be able to play on it.”

The desire for a home that will be well used and well loved by their family has played an integral part in many of the Gilsons’ design decisions. For instance, cutting a hole for three new windows in a wall of the second-floor master bedroom required the addition of load-bearing beams underneath the wall. Installing the beams as a frame around the existing living room windows created what Matt calls a “cove of necessity” that they’ve turned into a cozy, child-friendly space. After swapping out the bulky old radiator under the windows for a low-profile one, they had Nevel design an oak window bench to cover it. They also had narrow, built-in bookshelves created at both ends of the alcove. The nook has become a favorite spot for their son, five, and daughter, three, who like to climb up and retrieve the family photo albums stored on the shelves.

The wood-burning fireplace in the living room is one of two in the house; making them operable was a priority. And while the Gilsons simply painted the brick surrounding the fireplace in the master bedroom, the mantel in the living room underwent a more radical change. “We’d always been curious about what was behind [the mantel] and whether it resembled what’s upstairs,” Matt says. “One day I decided, that’s it; I’m going to see.” He tore off the black marble and walnut mantel to discover unfinished, smoke-stained brick, which they decided to leave exposed. Matt later made a two-level mantel out of an old toboggan he found at a flea market.

The couple seem quite comfortable waiting for design decisions to reveal themselves. The third floor holds a rundown bathroom, a cluttered office, and an unfinished-feeling guest room. But the Gilsons aren’t in a huge hurry to get it done, saying that they’re here for the long haul. “This is the house the kids will come home from college to,” Holly says. And perhaps, like their father, they too will one day come home for good.

For resource information, see Buyers Guide.

 

Photography: Matthew Gilson

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