On The Waterfront

One connection led to another, and then the Chicago architect James Nagle began collaborating with a Michigan couple to design a serene house for a prime lakeside site

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All the right angles: In the kitchen, light maple cabinetry contrasts with dark concrete countertops—a juxtaposition that reappears in the wood and steel of the staircase.

That was clear to Jim Bagaloff, then the owner of a financial-services company in Lansing, when he went to take a look at the estate in 1978. He was reading The Wall Street Journal one Friday afternoon when he spotted an ad for the property—half a mile of frontage on Lake Michigan, three homes, two barns, a quarter of a mile of an inland lake. He looked at the property on Saturday, and his offer was accepted on Tuesday. His plan was to live in the community and develop the site.

“If I hadn’t picked up that newspaper,” Bagaloff says, “I would have never known about it.”

“And he had the will to act,” the husband says, “which most people lack.”

At the top, a Buttercup chair by Blue Dot and a telescope offer a long view.

But the husband obviously isn’t one of those people. At the beginning of the project, he gave Nagle four pages of planning guidelines for the house. Among the specifics: overall design concepts, desired views, public-area layouts, accommodations for guests, placement of decks, storage needs. Proving that some great visionaries think alike, Nagle was right back at the clients with a preliminary sketch.

Over time, they made changes—windows and decks were added; a room went upstairs and a screened-in porch came down; materials were carefully chosen to avoid exacerbating the wife’s allergies. Bagaloff, who lived nearby, took on the contracting responsibilities; the California designer Andrew Fisher, who had worked on the clients’ condominium in San Francisco, flew in for an initial visit; Rita Whaley, who had previously collaborated with Bagaloff, was brought in to handle on-site design concerns and to be a go-between for the architect, the contractor, and the often-absentee owners.

Building began at the bottom of the property, the husband explains, with a deck on a bluff and a stairway descending to the beach. The guesthouse was finished first; with that structure in place, the clients could stay there on visits while the main house was under construction. That or camp out beneath northern Michigan’s brilliant stars.

When I visit in late summer to see the grand plan fully realized, I initially go in a side entrance and then insist that for a true sense of arrival, we will have to begin again. Repairing to a point just beyond the main entrance of the property, the husband and I walk straight ahead and encounter a large stand of birch trees encircled by flowering shrubs; pine trees line either side—an arrangement designed by Joe Karr, a Chicago landscape architect, to enhance and conceal.

“I wanted privacy and then the mystery of the house,” the husband explains. We continue down a covered walkway that allows a view through the house and on to today’s calm lake—a sense of transparency prevails throughout the property. And no doorbell here; guests announce their presence by walloping a Burmese temple gong.

Inside, the mood is easy, the weight of worldly gravity relieved. As requested in the planning guidelines, the living and dining areas and the kitchen are open to one another. The woods are light but varied—maple for the cabinets in the kitchen and the living room (with storage to the max built in), cedar for the ceilings, slate floors that give way to cherry.

The furnishings in the house are a blend of the comfortable and the custom made (Fisher-designed sofas and chairs), midcentury modern classics (tables by Warren Platner), and antiques (a tall butternut cabinet and Pennsylvania Dutch beds that belonged to the husband’s father).

The owners prefer to mix the antique and the modern. “Often people think that in homes this contemporary, you need to stay with that,” Whaley says. “But this house has personality. Don’t you see it? It’s warm.” The goal here: clean lines, simple lines, comfort.

In the two-story living room, custom-made furniture was combined with sixties-designed end tables by Warren Platner. Beside the concrete fireplace is a surrealist assemblage by Gerome Kamrowski.

A hallway to the right of the entry leads to a TV room, painted a punchy persimmon to contrast with an otherwise off-white palette. Outside the guest room at that end of the house hang historical photos of the logging days and the surrounding topography. Together, the owners have four children and two grandchildren, and just about every room in the house is equipped to accommodate one or more guests (no crowding!).

Upstairs, the hallway on the right leads to a sitting room (the snoratorium, the husband calls it) and the master bedroom and baths. The wife’s custom-built closet, with its special scarf-hanging compartments, is a wonder all its own. Studies for the couple are situated at the opposite end of the floor,  overlooking the living room. Cabinets that didn’t quite work downstairs were refitted to go here and will eventually hold the husband’s antique toy collection.

When Whaley visited the clients at their home in Ann Arbor (a sixties design by the architect George Brigham) while this project was in progress, she noted differences in style but consistencies in the appreciation of art and nature. It was important to the couple, in their new house, to avoid barriers between inside and out but also to design enough spaces to keep artwork safe from the sun. Collages by Alan Shields appear on every level of the central stairway. Works by Jim Dine and Anni Albers hang elsewhere. Beside the living-room fireplace stands a surrealist assemblage by Gerome Kamrowski.

Places for additional artwork are here and there, a necessity for all collectors. But the owners are pleased with things as they are. By the time they were done, the wife says, they had left no design possibility unexplored. There is certainty for her in where that effort led: “We ended up with the perfect house.”

Next: Resources

Photography: Scott McDonald/ Hedrich Blessing 

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