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This Two-Flat Conversion in Lincoln Park Has a Terrific Atrium

Architect Ken Schroeder was enlisted for the highly imaginative gut renovation, now on the market for $2.2 million.

The Belden Avenue town home has surprises inside.   Photo: Ian Spula

Price: $2.195 million

In the late 1990s, business executive Cody Engle and his wife, Deborah, spun a modernist palace from an 1889 two-flat. “We built a little house inside a big house,” says Cody. It rings true once you spend a little time inside. The Lincoln Park three-bed is a study in contrasting heights, with an open three-story atrium and up-and-down levels on the ground floor. “Some homes have grand rooms and really high ceilings but you feel like you’re in Union Station,” adds Cody. “We host parties with 120 people and fit 185 in here for our wedding—and you still get cozy spots not far from the action.”

One novel construction, what the Engles call “the cone,” creates a circular flow and splits the house into intimate self-contained areas. The Engles and former Director of Architecture at UIC Ken Schroeder of SMHG-A Architects drew inspiration from Le Corbusier and one Portuguese palace’s unusual kitchen. It is hollow fiberglass but has the texture and mass of concrete, and a powerful skylight bores down through the structure to the eat-in kitchen. Extra slits in the cone’s wall filter some light into adjacent rooms and give a bird’s eye view from the second floor. Despite the home’s incredible airiness, natural light does not flood in. “To have light work you have to have shadow,” says Cody.

The cone is the heart of the house and passing through it brings you to a secretive master suite with vaulted ceilings, window seating, and a back terrace. First floor masters are unusual tall vintage homes. If a buyer wants to resituate it, there is available space on the second floor. Here and back in the atrium, wood covers jagged ceilings—a tongue-and-grooved Douglas fir, the exact wood used in classic Chicago porches albeit with a nicer finish. Another ode to Chicago is in the parking pad’s cobbles. They were recovered from Cobbler Square in Old Town during its 1980s loft conversion, another of Schroeder’s designs.

While the house subsists on just three bedrooms, there’s actually two more lying in wait in the rented-out basement. They can also be treated as game rooms or offices. The atrium’s voided space makes for partial second and third floors (the third is just a balcony perched at the front of the house, reached by a queasy scamper up a fixed ladder), but square footage is still 5,291. “The interiors are seven to eight feet wider than the norm for a standard Chicago lot,” says listing agent Joanne Nemerovski of Berkshire Hathaway KoenigRubloff. The lot is two feet wider than the 25-foot standard, but the house is built line-to-line which today’s zoning won’t allow. It also absorbs most of the 134-foot depth.

Realistically, a buyer will probably bring in changes. A couple of developers have also looked at the house and concluded that work could be done outside the dramatic central space to add things that are selling today, such as a large kitchen family room and a roof deck. The lot’s R5 zoning also allows for an additional level. The sheltered and small back deck can be pushed out over the parking pad. The pad can’t be eliminated entirely because it’s also the driveway to an attached two-car garage, so extending the deck is the best bet.

The asking price has come down $200,000 from a January listing at $2.395 million.  My sense is that the Engles’ tranquil new life in California is exerting major pull and they’d rather not sit on the property through the summer.

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