Jacobson and Crowley have given the house what it wants, both out front and in back, where outdoor dining is a warm-weather pleasure. Photo Gallery :::
When Michael Crowley and Michael Jacobson moved into a vintage bungalow in the Irving Park neighborhood in 1997, their new backyard was a blank slate. It would quickly become a shared project where the two could explore, and work out, their aesthetic differences—Crowley leans toward exuberant color, while Jacobson goes for a more soothing palette.
In the garden, a dead zone in the deep shade of an overgrown and unkempt apple tree when they arrived, they learned all the usual beginning gardener’s lessons, including the one about odd numbers of plants being more dynamic-looking than even numbers, and perennials requiring less personal involvement than annuals. Then, as their business, the River North hair studio Michael & Michael, began to thrive, the garden had to spend some time fending for itself, which it did well as the plants matured. It got to looking fantastic, in fact—like a hairstyle so flattering, you can’t remember ever having any other ‘do.
"A bungalow wants to be surrounded by a garden," says Jacobson Photo Gallery :::
Neither Michael had ever had a garden, or lived so far west of the lakefront, when they moved in, but the house appealed to them. Having had only two owners since its construction in 1927, it still had its wood trim and other original features and no frustrating "upgrades," like glass block windows or drop ceilings. In back, the apple tree shaded out the possibility of anything but a thinning carpet of grass. They rented for the first two years, dreaming of owning and putting in a garden; all the dreams started with tearing out the apple tree.
So when the landlords offered to sell the house to Crowley and Jacobson, the couple knew where they would start: Rip out the carpeting inside to reveal the nicely preserved wood floors, and then get outside and start a garden. They wanted "drama, charm, and boldness," Jacobson says.
They planted annuals in big doses: geraniums, petunias, impatiens. They replaced the chainlink fence with a six-foot cedar fence to create a sense of enclosure. They hung bird feeders everywhere (and attracted mostly squirrels). Eventually they graduated to the mature joys of watching hydrangeas, black-eyed Susans, and other perennials return every year, and seeing shrubs bud in the spring.
And they installed a pond garden. It started out so meager that Jacobson can’t refer to it without rolling his eyes.
"I was so impressed by it then," he recalls of their first effort, which involved a small prefab lining from a garden center. "It was like a big bucket. You dig the hole and drop it in, and then you put too many plants in it." They stuffed it with water lilies, reeds, water lettuces. "And then we paraded guests back to our water feature, and they were thinking, ‘It’s, like, a bucket,’" Crowley says.
They expanded the pond bit by bit, until an idea struck. Like countless Chicago homes on alley blocks, their bungalow had a narrow strip of yard next to the garage; they would use it to enlarge the pond, which now includes a bubbling fountain and a water cypress ("Optimistic Jacobson says it’ll get 100 feet tall," Crowley says. "We’ll see.").
A simple plank bridge spans the pond, leading to a stone-paved patio where garden chairs sit in the shade of a birch tree. "It’s like your big living room where you entertain has a smaller sitting room set off to one side, where people sit and talk," Crowley says. "You’re not entering a closed-off space, just a smaller part of the big space." The couple had a landscape firm, Gary’s Finer Landscapes (773-467-8987), install the planks and some of the stone flooring, but they did most of the other work, and all of the design, themselves.
Both claim they paid less attention to the house than to the yard, but the bungalow’s interior has the same calmly invigorating mood as the gardens. Reupholstered second-hand furniture co-exists comfortably with clean-lined new pieces, mostly from Crate & Barrel.
"To me, hiring a designer to do your whole house—nothing means anything if you don’t know where you got it," Crowley says. "It might be beautiful and expensive, but why is it here? We wanted a beautiful place that didn’t feel pretentious or elegant, because the house isn’t that. It’s a bungalow. You can do anything in a bungalow—if it’s simple, it will be cool."
A dormered attic became a handsome master bedroom, with natural light pouring in through skylights. A vintage Oriental rug is bright against the painted wood floors; a swingy 1970s side chair was rescued from a church garage sale and reupholstered.
The house is full of such finds, a harmonious mix of eras and pedigrees. The living room’s coffee table is an old slatted wood bench that Jacobson spotted at an antique store in Lakeside, Michigan, then stripped and refinished. Among Crowley’s contributions is an evocative wall of pictures in the guest bedroom, with World War I photos and fraternity composites of his paternal grandfather and original Vanity Fair prints from the judge’s chambers of his maternal grandfather.
The house, inside and out, feels fresh and familiar at once. The garden, now in its tenth year, has filled in beautifully. Grape vines creep up the sides of the garage, mingling with the candles hanging there. Bold black-eyed Susans are as full and dense as yellow-topped shrubs. The gangly young birches have become impressive specimens.
"It’s like going to the suburbs, but only a block off Addison," Crowley says of the set-up. Now, though they’re thinking of selling and moving to a living space above their salon in a century-old building on Chicago Avenue, the prospect of leaving their garden behind is painful.
"The best thing about that garden," Crowley says, "is that we did it all ourselves."
Photography: Matthew Gilson
Styling: Arden Nelson