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On Second Thought

An earthshaking renovation creates a peaceful retreat— hidden in plain sight

(page 1 of 2)

Photography by Nathan Kirkman

Styling by Diane Ewing

 

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With its stucco and stone walls and clean, modern profile, the house on the double corner lot just east of Damen Avenue stands out from the neighboring brick three-flats and traditional single-family homes in this part of Bucktown. Designed to hug a garden, the L-shaped home provides an escape from urban bustle for owners Jody Simons and her husband, Doug O’Donahue, and their ten-year-old son, Gavin. “I wanted my home to be soothing-somewhere to go to melt away the stresses of the day,” says Simons.

But creating that sanctuary was anything but soothing. When Simons and O’Donahue bought the 15-year-old house, it was a concrete block eyesore that had been badly neglected. “It was basically a teardown when they purchased it,” says Joel Huffman, principal of the architecture firm Vertu, Inc., who masterminded the redo. “It was built on a concrete slab and had no basement.”

But the new owners liked the footprint of the house and decided against a teardown. Removing the slab and deepening the foundation, a major undertaking, was the first order of business. Trucks hauled more than 60 loads of dirt out of the ground to make room for a basement with nine-foot ceilings. “It was the middle of winter, and the ground was steaming because it was so cold outside. The earth was warmer than the air. It was a big process,” O’Donahue says.

The exterior walls of the house were mostly preserved, but the interior walls were rearranged to open up the floor plan. “The original house was a menagerie of little rooms. It was like a maze,” O’Donahue says. “There was a bathroom smack in the middle of the first floor. The staircase ran alongside it. The whole thing was very dark.” A master bedroom, bathroom, library, and screened porch were removed from this level, and the plain wooden staircase was replaced with a gleaming metal one in a more prominent location.

“We went through a lot of effort to get the first floor to be a free, open plan,” says Huffman. “We ended up putting most of the functional space-the powder room, the coat closet, and the bulk of the kitchen-along two walls, which allowed the floor plan to flow more naturally into the garden space.” Says Simons, “This house is about the garden.” Huffman envisioned it as an exterior room and included many floor-to-ceiling windows in his design so the outdoor space would seamlessly connect with the indoor. The couple frequently entertain, and when the weather permits they love to open the double glass doors in the dining area and invite guests to enjoy both spaces.

To the right of the front door, the redesigned first floor contains a dining area large enough to hold a baby grand piano; beyond that, a sitting room runs the width of the house. On the other side, an airy living room opens onto the large kitchen, where a pantry is tucked behind glass doors. Along another wall, hidden from the other rooms, is “my command center,” as Simons jokingly calls her home office. “During construction, plans were covering the desktop.” These days, she pays bills and organizes the family’s schedules in the smartly arranged space.

In the middle of the house, a brushed aluminum staircase with white-stained oak treads floats up through the building’s three floors like a piece of sleek sculpture.

The exterior of the house needed a major facelift, as well. To bring it in synch with the back-to-nature feel of the rest of the home, the concrete block was covered in a soft beige stucco. Brown brick accents were overlaid with natural ledge-stone veneer to provide texture and contrast with the stucco. “The natural feel of the stone ties into the garden concept,” Huffman says.

Indoors, espresso-stained walnut cabinetry in the kitchen and shelving in the dining area, all designed by Huffman, add a sophisticated note. Burled walnut provides visual interest on the kitchen’s island, on closet doors, and above the buffet.

“This project was really about finding that fine line between the modern interior and natural garden,” Huffman says. “We tried to tie things together and, at the same time, add some contrasts.”

Light-stained maple floors throughout the house contribute to its peaceful feel. Upstairs, the master bedroom is a study in Zen. Handsome latticed doors from 18th-century China separate the bathroom from the sleeping area. A deep Japanese soaking tub fits in one corner of the teak-trimmed bathroom, which has a separate, luxurious shower space. Around the tub, limestone tiles hold fossilized impressions of leaves; shoji screens separate the toilet area from the rest of the bathroom. “There are no jets or anything in the tub-I just wanted a nice, soothing place to check out of everything,” Simons explains.

In their son’s room, a loft bed allows plenty of play space on the floor. “It’s great for sleepovers. It’s like his very own treehouse,” O’Donahue says. A flowering apple tree just outside the bedroom window furthers the illusion.

The new basement offers the family a place to enjoy television, music, and other recreation. “We’re planning to put a big aquarium down here,” says O’Donahue, who keeps drums in the basement and frequently plays them to relax. “It’s a great place to spend time with our son.”

“This house fits us perfectly,” Simons says. “We wanted a place to unwind, entertain, and escape the city. We love it.”

 

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