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A Modern Clean Space in An Old House

THIS NEW OLD HOUSE: A vintage single-family home on the North Side gets a rejuvenating gut rehab

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The kitchen morphs into a family room, with continuous built-in cabinets guiding the eye from one space to the other. The sofa, from Jayson Home & Garden, is set right up against them.
The kitchen morphs into a family room, with continuous built-in cabinets guiding the eye from one space to the other. The sofa, from Jayson Home & Garden, is set right up against them. See more photos in our gallery below.

Though she bought her Lincoln Park house—a turn-of-the-century two-flat converted into a single-family home in the 1980s—rather impulsively from a friend just before it went on the market, this homeowner has taken her time with the purchase ever since. About six years after contacting Claudia Skylar and James Mastro of Mastro & Skylar Architects to help her reinvent the space, she is only now living there the way she had imagined. Which isn’t to say she’s done searching for just the right finishing pieces with her decorator, Arden Nelson.

 The long haul could be attributed in part to the client’s travel-intensive job (which led to many extended interruptions in the planning stages), in part to typical renovation nightmares (a crumbling basement foundation, for one). But the truth is, a lot of time was spent settling on the right trims, colors, and materials. “Sometimes it just takes a while for a client to feel comfortable with something,” says Nelson, whose idea it was to whitewash all the floors on the first level—a scary proposition for some people.

The client, whom Skylar lovingly refers to as “an anti-clutter freak who wants only possessions she really loves” (a fair assessment, according to the homeowner), came into the project “knowing only that I didn’t want anything ornate or stuffy,” she says. She told Skylar she wanted something modern. “But as it turned out, she didn’t mean modern—she meant simple and clean, but still with the moldings and old doors she really loves,” the architect says. “The whole job was characterized by that yin-yang.” Which made Nelson—who favors a delicate mix of old and new—an ideal collaborator.

The partnership really shines in the kitchen, which is located in the back of the house. After a previous renovation, it seemed almost too big, given the modest size of the hardly touched dining and sitting rooms up front. Skylar divided it into three areas: a family room, the kitchen proper, and, tucked to the side, a “glorified butler’s pantry” containing a second sink, storage, the dog’s bowls, and other necessities. The space is mostly modern, but Nelson added a Shaker-ish touch: frames around the cabinet doors (flatter and wider than they would be in a more traditional design) to soften the look.

Skylar also went to town on the dark middle section of the first floor, tearing down walls here and moving plumbing there, ultimately carving out a niche for a new picture window that would bring in a little extra sunshine. In doing so, she gave her client a lovely view of the neighbor’s garden and a handy built-in bar below that window.

As always, she moved with a light step. “We took a wall out and put a beam in, opening up the dining room, so now there’s this large, open central area breaking up the hallway that connects the front and back of the house. But we also used these little hints, like three-inch nibs of trim at the openings to the different spaces, to recall the original architecture,” she says. “What we were going for was this modern, clean space, but still with the essence of an old house.”

It took a while, but they got there.


Photograph: Nathan Kirkman

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