Higher Society

A century-old building in a historic neighborhood gets a state-of-the-art terrace with all the comforts of home—and plenty of reasons for friends to relax and stay awhile.

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Photography by Alan Shortall
Produced by
Susan Victoria

 

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Mark and Natalia Burgett’s rooftop deck has so much going for it, it’s hard for them to single out a favorite part. The outdoor kitchen? The open-air shower, for cooling off after sunbathing? The pool table that converts to a Ping-Pong table? The extensive lighting system-with dimmers-that allows them to stretch the day into night?

All great features. But the best thing about her rooftop terrace, Natalia says, is simply that it exists. “It really did add another floor to our house,” she points out. “We have a little living room up there, the shower, areas for eating. You can have a big group of people doing different things.”

The deck occupies the entire rooftop of a 19th-century triplex building in the historic Old Town Triangle neighborhood. Designed by John West of JW Landscapes in Chicago, the terrace has all the comforts of home-plus fresh air, sunshine, and 360-degree views.

Its most dazzling feature is a custom-designed stainless steel kitchen that was fabricated in Arizona, shipped here, and raised to the rooftop by a crane. The Burgetts like to entertain, and having the grill, a refrigerator, and running water at the ready makes warm-weather cooking a breeze.

Winterizing the kitchen, West says, is simply a matter of wrapping the appliances and furniture securely to protect them against ice and salt (“in Chicago the air gets salty because of the salt on the streets"). In the spring, he gives the unwrapped stainless steel appliances a light polish and they’re ready to go.

The kitchen is in a pergola that includes comfortable furniture for lounging and watching a large, flat-screen TV. Perfect for having people over for a Cubs game, Natalia points out. Speakers allow music to be piped in from the Burgetts’ sound system downstairs.

For this area and others, West selected furniture that was either heavy enough to be unmoved by brisk winds or porous enough to let gusts pass through. He chose not to use many teak furnishings, he says, because he wanted to vary materials, and because there was already plenty of wood up there. The pergola and deck flooring are made of high-grade cedar; an accent wall, of lightweight cultured concrete. A corrugated metal roof provides shade.

One of West’s challenges was dealing with two skylights, one of which is smack in the middle of a high-traffic area. “Most people build a fence structure around skylights, which to me was unacceptable,” he says. His solution was to cover the skylight with a circle of thick tempered glass flush with the surface of the deck. “It has the look of water,” he says. “You can walk on it, jump on it-it lets light through, but it’s opaque enough that you can’t see through,” which is a good thing, as the skylight is right over the master bathroom.

For the other skylight, another good idea: West designed a raised enclosure around the skylight, faced it with Italian glass tile, and topped the opening with another round of tempered glass, creating a tabletop through which light passes to the floor below. Cylindrical stools around the table make it even more functional.

For plantings, West used half annuals and half hardy perennials, shrubs, and trees. He lined the planter boxes with Styrofoam and filled the bottom half of the boxes with the material, too, to ease the transition into freezing weather and to keep the boxes from getting too heavy for the roof.

The deck is ideal for sun-loving plants, and because the building is in a landmarked historic district, their access to rays will never be impeded by a high-rise springing up next door. For gardens like this one, West is fond of Ginkgo biloba and Chinese fringe trees for height, and he also likes grasses. When choosing flowers, he says, the color of the deck stain led him to use oranges, yellows, and reds, with a few purples and blues for depth and punch.

The plant boxes are watered with a ten-zone automatic irrigation system. “When you’re dealing with a rooftop, especially on an older home, you have water pressure issues,” West notes. The zones get watered on a 15-minute rotation every other day, starting early in the morning.

To the soil in the freestanding pots he added moisture-holding crystals; the Burgetts use hoses to water those plants about once a week. Another of West’s tricks is to spray trees with an anti-transpirant called Wilt-Pruf to help keep branches from drying out when winter sets in.

Beyond that, maintenance of the deck might include having it restained and refinished every two years, if the owners so desire. “I tell people to do that if they want to keep their deck looking really good,” West says. “Though some people like the weathered gray look.”

For Natalia’s part, she’s looking forward to summer and to using her California-style outdoor space to entertain friends and family again. “It really does function well,” she says. “It’s like a little house.”

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