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Making It Work

With a few shrewd moves, an architect improves—majorly—on a gut-rehabbed Wicker Park house

(page 1 of 3)

Front portion of the living room
The front portion of the living room is painted a deep gray-brown; window shades (which span the walls) are the same color. “Dark walls have a place in most homes,” architect Kathryn Quinn says. “When you’re flooded with light, the darkness becomes a foil. Like, ‘Oh, some relief.’” See more photos in our gallery below.

“What a difference a door makes” could very well be architect Kathryn Quinn’s renovation mantra. “So often I walk into a place and say, ‘If I just moved that door, it would rock,’” she says. And in the case of this Wicker Park reno, her strategy worked wonders.

The client, Carole Cousin, had an inkling Quinn would come up with a solution for the almost-perfect single-family house she had found a few years ago. With three levels, a soaring ceiling, beautiful skylights, and lots of windows, there was much to like, but she also knew the century-old house, which had been gut-rehabbed in 2001, needed help. The exterior had sadly dated finishes, and the flow inside was awkward. Having seen Quinn’s rehab of a loft owned by a vice president at Crate & Barrel (where Cousin is the product director for tabletop and seasonal accesssories), she asked the architect to join her and her husband, Steve Wallman, for a prepurchase viewing.

“I walked in and said, ‘This is great. It has great bones. The staircase is lovely. We just have to redefine circulation,’” says Quinn, whose first move, true to form, was relocating the front door. “It used to be in the middle, so when you walked in, the room was split in half.”

Behind the Scenes
Behind the Scenes: Graceful Entrance »

By repositioning the door to one side of the front entrance nook, she gave her clients a proper living room, with enough new wall space in a crucial spot to accommodate a pair of low-slung chairs facing the sectional sofa and coffee table (before, the chairs would have obstructed the entrance). And instead of walking straight into the middle of the living room, visitors now are greeted by a foyerlike area with an elegant built-in shelf that functions as a console, morphing into a wall of walnut cabinetry.

Quinn further enhanced the front portion of the living room by adding a raised panel to a sidewall and painting the whole area a deep gray-brown. The effect is to delineate the two bays flanking the entrance and make them recede visually while looking entirely balanced and intentional.

Her next move was to widen the bridge that connects the living room to the kitchen and then enlarge the doorway to the kitchen, resulting in a much more open-feeling space. Originally, this bridge—with the main staircase on one side of it and a light well to the lower level on the other—had been only three feet wide. “It was a bottleneck,” Quinn says. “We moved it out because we liked the idea of using this as another place to hang. Sometimes the owners have a settee on the bridge or put a long table there if they are having a dinner party.”

Key to the plan was “the acceptance of kitchen as dining room,” says Quinn. But ultimately, this was not a big deal for the owners, who love to spend time in their new walnut and rift-sawn-oak Bulthaup kitchen—one of the biggest splurges in this project. Elsewhere, Quinn saved money by using simple materials such as wood flooring on a wall of the guest bathroom and Thassos stone tile in the shower. She also went with track lighting instead of recessed cans to avoid punching any more openings in walls and ceilings than necessary.

While the space appears to be completely transformed, it wasn’t another gut job, by a long shot. “We recognized from the beginning that the singular strong move of this house was the stair,” says Quinn. “I had to honor that it was not mine, but because it was such a strong feature of the house, we had to let everything else be really quiet and recede from that. We kept a simple palette and kept the costs reasonable. We didn’t do a lot, so what we did do, we could do really well.”


Photography: Nathan Kirkman
Styling: Susan Victoria

Photo gallery


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