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Friendly Persuasion

As one of the city’s most successful agents of high-end house and condo sales, Janet Owen knows the art of the real-estate deal.

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“I always say that real estate isn’t bricks and mortar,” Owen explains. “It’s a a lifestyle.”

Go ahead, call me a philistine. What has caught my eye isn’t the elevated crown molding or the perfect inlay of hexagonal antique tile from Provence. It’s not the twin Bosch dishwashers or the magnificent La Cornue range with the Danish copper hood. No, it’s what protrudes from the wall between the range and the hood. A pipe, it looks like, with some kind of valve.

“What is that?” I ask.

“It’s a pot pourer,” says Janet Owen, and graciously explains that it saves carrying heavy vats of pasta water from the sink to the stove.

I could have inquired about the flat piece of wood with the poles underneath and she would have replied, in the same imperturbable voice, “It’s a table.”

Not much fazes Janet Owen. She knows better than to make judgments. Some of her best clients show up in running clothes. “Some who are dressed to the nines,” she says, “are maxed out and can’t afford a loan.”

So please, please, if there is any question about your credit, if you are not a serious buyer, do not take up Owen’s time. She is a busy woman. She is one of a very select group, a handful at most-the elite real-estate brokers who have survived every twist of the market to stay on top. This past winter Real Estate Executive magazine tagged her: “Simply the Best!”

She may also be the best dressed. She is a fan of elegance, though the small stuff, the mere tokens of success, mean nothing. You will not find Owen behind the wheel of a Mercedes or a Lexus or even a Yugo. In the company of a client, having to drive would be too distracting. Owen takes taxis. Let clients think what they may.

Let reporters think what they may.

The morning we are scheduled to meet at the house on Dayton Street, she calls on my cell phone. “Where are you? Would you mind terribly picking me up? I got halfway to the house and realized I forgot the keys.”

Owen is mostly a listings agent-that is, she represents sellers, and today the house she is selling is very nice indeed. The full-size 16-page color brochure begins, “Rarely [do] limestone and mortar combine to create a masterpiece. . . . [This is] the most beautiful home on the market.” Custom built in 2001, it is a 5,400-square-foot, five-bedroom knockout. The kitchen is by Christopher Peacock, a big name in home design. The spa/master bath has “English faucetry.” The hardware and hinges are French Bouvet; there are “Honduran mahogany ball and socket French doors.” You get a 1,000-bottle wine cellar and two fully equipped laundry rooms. The front steps include an “automatic snow melt.”


The house is currently occupied, but you would never know it. Every countertop is spotless. Strategically placed bowls of fruit look composed by Cézanne. Politely but firmly, Owen asks for my Starbucks container to dispose of. There are no cookies baking in the oven, an ancient ploy to seduce buyers. Owen does not sell houses with cookies. There is also no music playing. Here, and particularly in high-rises, Owen feels that buyers will suspect the music is on to hide noise. But the floors-yes, the floors are worth noting. “Heart of pine-that means one board for each tree,” marvels Owen, as if honoring a mink that had given up its entire pelt for a cuff. “Can you imagine? It’s unbelievably expensive.”

Depending on your point of view, the house, too-1924 North Dayton Street-is expensive, on the market for $3.595 million.

Owen herself lives a few blocks east, on Howe Street. She loves the neighborhood. She says she will sell houses only in neighborhoods she loves. She loved the Gold Coast when she lived there. She loved Streeterville and Lincoln Park, where she also had homes. So this neighborhood-well, who can beat it? “I always say that real estate isn’t bricks and mortar,” she explains. “It’s lifestyle. We’ve got a butcher down the street; there’s a world-renowned five-star restaurant and a place for Italian ice. Mothers are pushing baby carriages, and people are walking dogs. Armi- tage is our Main Street.”

Its homey attractions notwithstanding, this area of real estate-roughly bordered, going clockwise, by Dayton, Armitage, Howe, and North Avenue-has experienced a startling face-lift in the past few years.

I looked at a home myself on Burling ten years back. The house is long gone, torn down, the lot merged with its neighbor to anchor what can only be described as a mansion. There are mansions up and down Burling. At the north end, near Armitage, the March First baron Robert Bernard built a five-lot version of Versailles before his fortunes tumbled. John Bucksbaum, the chief executive officer of General Growth Properties, completed his home at the south end this year.

The abundance of high-profile names has prompted some to call this area the new Gold Coast. Many of Chicago’s social elite live here. So do successful traders, bankers, and lawyers. The prospective buyer of 1924 North Dayton would fit in nicely. She is a big partner in a big law firm and arrives dressed in a smartly tailored suit. Her name is Linda. In many ways the house is just what Linda wants. She loves the “finishes,” the moldings, the cabinetry. Even the daring tartan plaid in the basement thrills her. She is a Francophile, and she knows all about Delft tile.

It’s just, well, the house isn’t big enough. Five bedrooms and 5,400 square feet are nice. “But more spacious is what we’re shooting for. What do they want for the lot next door?”


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