Balconies, terraces, and rows of windows are the defining features of this Glencoe house, built ten years ago. Landscape architect Drew Johnson created a grass-and-stone staircase to connect the backyard’s two levels. See more photos in our gallery below.
The Glencoe woman was just a teenager, sprinting across a stone bridge a block from her home, when an interesting property caught her eye. Located on one of the many ravines that run through the North Shore, the house afforded breathtaking views of the bridge where she liked to run. “I always thought, Someday, maybe,” she says.
Years later, the woman was living nearby with her husband and three children when she spotted a for-sale sign on the property she’d once eyed. “I was a little bit in disbelief,” she recalls. “I couldn’t bring myself to go over there, so I sent my husband. He called a little while later and said, ‘You are going to love it.’” They bought it.
There were a few hitches. The house, built in the 1930s, was attractive, but updating it for modern living would have been difficult, so the couple decided to tear it down and build new—an English Manor–style house with five bedrooms, seven baths, and plentiful windows and outdoor spaces with views of the ravine and the bridge. To ensure those views would be spectacular, the couple hired landscape architect Drew Johnson of Rocco Fiore & Sons, who had designed their previous home’s garden.
“At first I thought it was a really awkward situation,” Johnson says of the lot’s ratcheting grade changes, which include a 13-foot drop-off from front to rear yard, an eight-foot drop-off between front yard and swimming pool level, and the ravine below it all. To make matters even more challenging, the property was a corner lot. But the homeowners had a vision, and Johnson soon realized that with some creativity, top-notch engineering, and a plan, the garden could be spectacular. “Because it’s a corner lot, it’s much more open,” he says. “You don’t have other houses on top of you.”
And fortunately, the house could be constructed and the landscaping installed simultaneously, allowing his team to work hand in hand with the builders on grading and drainage issues, which proved key. The couple didn’t want to wait months or years to look outside and see trees and flowers, nor did they want water cascading over the swimming pool and down into the ravine every time it rained.
Photograph: Linda Oyama Bryan
Porcelain vine (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) envelops a railing overlooking the swimming pool, the site of frequent warm-weather entertaining. See more photos in our gallery below.
Johnson began by shaping and grading the property’s existing levels into functional outdoor spaces: backyards on two different levels; a private, retreatlike front yard; and a side yard for swimming and sunning. Many of the same plants grow on all levels, providing unity and coherence.
The property’s centerpiece is an outdoor staircase of Kentucky bluegrass and Lannon stone risers connecting the two backyard levels. The grass on its 15 steps grows in a mixture of half soil and half sand and must be clipped by hand. The wife, a yoga aficionado, uses the lower level for plein-air downward dogs and other moves; the space connects with a workout room on the lower level of the house. On the upper level, where the couple’s children play, house meets yard with a generous patio.
In the front, where privacy is an issue (the house is situated near a busy street), Johnson used groupings of birch, hawthorn, and magnolia trees to create an informal courtyard. There, shade-loving plants such as hostas, lilies, and lady’s mantle take root.
Privacy also matters in the side yard. The solution in this case was to install mature evergreens, including Norway spruce and arborvitae, at staggered intervals. The oft-used pool area, site of summertime volleyball and basketball games, has enough sun for purple coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, and shrub roses to flourish. Stone walls are constructed of angular boulders; in summer they are mostly covered by creeping phlox, dianthus, and Sedum kamtschaticum, giving the garden the casual, flowing, and colorful look the wife favors.
Ten years have passed since the couple purchased the property, time used to transform it into a place to entertain, exercise, enjoy nature, and take in views of the beloved stone bridge, which can be seen from all levels of the backyard. The aging bridge is weathered and full of artful graffiti, which is fine with the couple, who prefer things indoors and out to look natural and well used, reminiscent of a country estate.
The landscaping, of course, has matured over the years. A willow tree, a gift from the wife’s mother, was planted as a sapling eight years ago; it now towers over plantings in the backyard. The sun-loving plants growing underneath will be replaced soon with shade dwellers, as the tree is getting too large to let rays through.
“That’s part of an ever-changing landscape,” Johnson says. “As plants grow and mature, you have to renew the garden.” And this, says the wife, has been the ideal space for her family to grow and change, too.
Photograph: Linda Oyama Bryan
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Landscape design: Rocco Fiore & Sons, 28270 N. Bradley Rd., Libertyville, 847-680-1207, roccofiore.com. Pool: Downes Swimming Pool, 725 W. University Dr., Arlington Heights, 847-398-7665, downespool.com. Patio furniture and umbrellas: Smith & Hawken, smithandhawken.com. Planters: Trellis & Trugs, 3372B Commercial Ave., Northbrook, 847-784-6910, trellisandtrugs.com.